Five years into the 'small RNA revolution' it is hard not to share in the excitement about the rapidly unravelling biology of microRNAs. Since the discovery of the first microRNA gene, lin-4, in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, many more of these short regulatory RNA genes have been identified in flowering plants, worms, flies, fish, frogs and mammals. Currently, about 2% of the known human genes encode microRNAs. MicroRNAs are essential for development and this review will summarise our current knowledge of animal microRNA function. We will also discuss the emerging links of microRNA biology to stem cell research and human disease, in particular cancer.