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Summary The insect body plan is very well conserved, yet the developmental mechanisms of segmentation are surprisingly varied. Less evolutionarily derived insects undergo short germ segmentation where only the anterior segments are specified before gastrulation whereas the remaining posterior segments are formed during a later secondary growth phase. In contrast, derived long germ insects such as Drosophila specify their entire bodies essentially simultaneously. These fundamental embryological differences imply potentially divergent molecular patterning events. Numerous studies have focused on comparing the expression and function of the homologs of Drosophila segmentation genes between Drosophila and different short and long germ insects. Here we review these comparative data with special emphasis on understanding how short germ insects generate segments and how this ancestral mechanism may have been modified in derived long germ insects such as Drosophila. We break down the larger issue of short versus long germ segmentation into its component developmental problems and structure our discussion in order to highlight the unanswered questions in the evolution of insect segmentation.