Bipolar disorder (BPD) is an often devastating illness characterized by extreme mood dysregulation. Although family, twin and adoption studies consistently indicate a strong genetic component, specific genes that contribute to the illness remain unclear. This study gives an overview of linkage studies of BPD, concluding that the regions with the best evidence for linkage include areas on chromosomes 2p, 4p, 4q, 6q, 8q, 11p, 12q, 13q, 16p, 16q, 18p, 18q, 21q, 22q and Xq. Association studies are summarized, which support a possible role for numerous candidate genes in BPD including COMT, DAT, HTR4, DRD4, DRD2, HTR2A, 5-HTT, the G72/G30 complex, DISC1, P2RX7, MAOA and BDNF. Animal models related to bipolar illness are also reviewed, with special attention paid to those with clear genetic implications. We conclude with suggestions for strategies that may help clarify the genetic bases of this complex illness.