The mechanism of human parturition is not understood and further research into this important physiological process is needed. Preterm labour remains a major cause of perinatal mortality and morbidity and there is controversy about the effectiveness of current tocolytic agents. In some species, notably the sheep, parturition is preceded by an activation of the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. However, in primates this axis has a supportive, rather than essential, role. A fall in maternal progesterone levels is a prerequisite for parturition in most mammals and this takes place either through increased conversion of progesterone to oestrogens in the placenta, or through the demise of the corpus luteum of pregnancy, depending on the species. In primates and guinea-pigs parturition occurs without an apparent fall in maternal progesterone levels. Gene targeting experiments in mice have demonstrated the critical role of prostaglandin FP receptors, necessary to mediate the luteolytic effect of PGF2α before parturition. Prostaglandin synthesis is required for the onset and progress of labour as demonstrated by experiments with cPLA2- and PGHS-1-deficient mice. The importance of local tissue conversion of progesterone to reduced androgens in the regulation of cervical ripening has been demonstrated in 5α-reductase-deficient mice. The chronic and ubiquitous gene inactivation obtained with conventional methods has disadvantages, in that it may allow the activation of compensating pathways, making the interpretation of results difficult. This problem may be overcome by using pulsed and tissue-selective gene knockout strategies. The study of human parturition is complicated by the lack of access to direct experimentation, whereas the endocrine differences between species make it difficult to extrapolate animal data to humans. However, the development of genomic/proteomic technologies that allow the simultaneous screening of thousands of genes and gene products in small samples of tissue, and new methods to study the biochemistry of receptors and proteins involved in smooth muscle physiology promise new insights into the control of human labour. Nevertheless, the integration of rapidly expanding knowledge into a complete understanding of the roles of the mother and the fetus in the initiation of parturition, and the development of selective medication for the effective management of preterm labour remain an arduous challenge for the next decade.