Increasing experimental and observational evidence in both animals and humans suggests that early life events are important in setting later fat mass. This includes both the number of adipocytes and the relative distribution of both brown and white adipose tissue. Brown adipose tissue is characterised as possessing a unique uncoupling protein (UCP)1 which enables the rapid generation of large amounts of heat and is most abundant in the newborn. In large mammals such as sheep and humans, brown fat that is located around the major internal organs, is largely lost during the postnatal period. However, it is retained in small and discrete areas into adulthood when it is sensitive to environmental cues such as changes in ambient temperature or day length. The extent to which brown adipose tissue is lost or replaced by white adipose tissue and/or undergoes a process of transdifferentiation remains controversial. Small amounts of UCP1 can also be present in skeletal muscle which now appears to share the same common precursor cell as brown adipose tissue. The functional consequences of UCP1 in muscle remain to be confirmed but it could contribute to dietary induced thermogenesis. Challenges in elucidating the primary mechanisms regulating adipose tissue development include changes in methylation status of key genes during development in different species, strains and adipose depots. A greater understanding of the mechanisms by which early life events regulate adipose tissue distribution in young offspring are likely to provide important insights for novel interventions that may prevent excess adiposity in later life. Crown Copyright © 2010. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.