The clinical approach to children with congenital heart defects (CHD) has been revolutionized during the past four decades by developments in diagnostics and therapeutics. In contrast, a profound understanding of the causes of the majority of CHD has only begun to emerge within the past few years. Prior epidemiological studies suggested that Mendelian disorders constituted a very small percentage of CHD and that polygenic inheritance was responsible for the majority of cases. Recent discoveries, largely achieved with molecular genetic studies, have provided new insights into the genetic basis of heart malformations. These studies have shown that CHD caused by single gene or single locus defects is more common than had been suspected. In addition, a higher percentage of heart malformations occur in the context of familial disease than was evident previously. In this review, molecular genetic studies of specific heart lesions and syndromes with CHD are reviewed. Progress on the Human Genome Project has accelerated identification of genes for Mendelian traits with heart defects, and it is anticipated that disease genes for most single gene traits will be known within a few years. Future challenges include utilizing this emerging genetic information to improve diagnosis and treatment of children with CHD, and harnessing the power of genomics to analyze isolated heart defects with complex inheritance patterns.