During embryonic development, polarized epithelial cells are either formed during cleavage or formed from mesenchymal cells. Because the formation of epithelia during embryogenesis has to occur with high fidelity to ensure proper development, embryos allow a functional approach to study epithelial cell polarization in vivo. In particular, genetic model organisms have greatly advanced our understanding of the generation and maintenance of epithelial cell polarity. Many novel and important polarity genes have been identified and characterized in invertebrate systems, like Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans. With the rapid identification of mammalian homologues of these invertebrate polarity genes, it has become clear that many important protein domains, single proteins and even entire protein complexes are evolutionarily conserved. It is to be expected that the field of epithelial cell polarity is just experiencing the 'top of the iceberg' of a large protein network that is fundamental for the specific adhesive, cell signalling and transport functions of epithelial cells.