Efforts to understand the pathobiology of pheochromocytomas and extra-adrenal paragangliomas have been spurred by genetic and gene expression profiling studies showing genotype-phenotype correlations in familial pheochromocytoma/paraganglioma syndromes and in some sporadic tumors. The current challenge is to relate catalogs of genetic and phenotypic markers to cell biology. Hypothetical bases for genotype-phenotype correlations include: cell of origin, pathway dependence, and functional and anatomic context. A further consideration is phenotype plasticity. Cross talk between signaling pathways provides a general framework for understanding how mutations of apparently unrelated genes might lead to the same type of tumor, and also suggests that targeted therapies might be directed either at a specific mutated gene or a downstream signal transducer. However, precise mechanisms of tumorigenesis remain unknown. An intriguing hypothesis proposes that mutations of RET, NF1, VHL, or SDH predispose to hereditary pheochromocytoma/ paraganglioma by causing defective apoptotic culling of cells that would normally be destroyed during embryogenesis. An argument favoring survival rather than mitogenesis as a common denominator is that the same mutations are rare in sporadic pheochromocytomas/paragangliomas, suggesting they only need to act during a limited developmental window. An implication is that tumor precursors could be identified and eradicated in individuals who carry the mutations.