Extensive experimental animal studies and epidemiological observations have shown that environmental influences during early development affect the risk of later pathophysiological processes associated with chronic, especially noncommunicable, disease (NCD). This field is recognized as the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD). We discuss the extent to which DOHaD represents the result of the physiological processes of developmental plasticity, which may have potential adverse consequences in terms of NCD risk later, or whether it is the manifestation of pathophysiological processes acting in early life but only becoming apparent as disease later. We argue that the evidence suggests the former, through the operation of conditioning processes induced across the normal range of developmental environments, and we summarize current knowledge of the physiological processes involved. The adaptive pathway to later risk accords with current concepts in evolutionary developmental biology, especially those concerning parental effects. Outside the normal range, effects on development can result in nonadaptive processes, and we review their underlying mechanisms and consequences. New concepts concerning the underlying epigenetic and other mechanisms involved in both disruptive and nondisruptive pathways to disease are reviewed, including the evidence for transgenerational passage of risk from both maternal and paternal lines. These concepts have wider implications for understanding the causes and possible prevention of NCDs such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, for broader social policy and for the increasing attention paid in public health to the lifecourse approach to NCD prevention. Copyright © 2014 the American Physiological Society.