The 20th Century saw an astonishing advance in our understanding of genetics and the scientific basis of the genetic improvement of farm animals. The application of genetic principles to chickens in the 1950s and 1960s led to a rapid change in the productivity and efficiency of laying hens and broiler chickens, turkeys and ducks. Subsequently, the application of increasingly powerful computers and sophisticated mathematical algorithms has increased the range of traits that could be successfully incorporated into breeding programs. Random sample tests of the performance of laying hens enjoyed a period of popularity and more recently the few remaining tests included husbandry systems in addition to strain evaluation. Characterisation of avian blood groups has led to the identification of the B21 haplotype that confers resistance to Marek's disease and to selection for this locus in commercial lines. The decade following the millennium saw the publication of the genome sequence of the chicken and the identification of millions of single nucleotide polymorphisms that, coupled with technological advances, made the application of whole genome selection practical in poultry. In parallel, the molecular basis for some Mendelian traits described a century ago is now being deciphered. Similar technologies have been applied to study genetic diversity in chickens and have provided insights into the evolution and domestication of chicken breeds. Finally, in this review, the recent development of the European Poultry Genetics Symposia coordinated by Working Group 3 'Genetics and Breeding' that was based on combining the British Poultry Breeders Round Table and AVIAGEN from West and Eastern Europe, is discussed.