Lateral root formation is a major determinant of root systems architecture. The degree of root branching impacts the efficiency of water uptake, acquisition of nutrients and anchorage by plants. Understanding the regulation of lateral root development is therefore of vital agronomic importance. The molecular and cellular basis of lateral root formation has been most extensively studied in the plant model Arabidopsis thaliana (Arabidopsis). Significant progress has recently been made in identifying many new Arabidopsis genes that regulate lateral root initiation, patterning and emergence processes. We review how these studies have revealed that the plant hormone auxin represents a common signal that integrates these distinct yet interconnected developmental processes.