Disorders of testicular function may have their origins in fetal or early life as a result of abnormal development or proliferation of Sertoli cells. Failure of Sertoli cells to mature, with consequent inability to express functions capable of supporting spermatogenesis, is a prime example. In a similar way, failure of Sertoli cells to proliferate normally at the appropriate period in life will result in reduced production of spermatozoa in adulthood. This review focuses on the control of proliferation of Sertoli cells and functional maturation, and is motivated by concerns about 'testicular dysgenesis syndrome' in humans, a collection of common disorders (testicular germ-cell cancer, cryptorchidism, hypospadias and low sperm counts) which are hypothesized to have a common origin in fetal life and to reflect abnormal function of Sertoli (and Leydig) cells. The timing of proliferation of Sertoli cells in different species is reviewed, and the factors that govern the conversion of an immature, proliferating Sertoli cell to a mature, non-proliferating cell are discussed. Protein markers of maturity and immaturity of Sertoli cells in various species are reviewed and their usefulness in studies of human testicular pathology are discussed. These markers include anti-Mullerian hormone, aromatase, cytokeratin-18, GATA-1, laminin alpha5, M2A antigen, p27(kip1), sulphated glycoprotein 2, androgen receptor and Wilms' tumour gene. A scheme is presented for characterization of Sertoli-cell only tubules in the adult testis according to whether or not there is inherent failure of maturation of Sertoli cells or in which the Sertoli cells have matured but there is absence, or acquired loss, of germ cells. Functional 'de-differentiation' of Sertoli cells is considered. It is concluded that there is considerable evidence to indicate that disorders of maturation of Sertoli cells may be a common underlying cause of human male reproductive disorders that manifest at various life stages. This recognition emphasizes the important role that animal models must play to enable identification of the mechanisms via which failure of proliferation and maturation of Sertoli cells can arise, as this failure probably occurs in fetal life.