Tumour necrosis factor α (TNFα) is a pro-inflammatory mediator with the capacity to induce apoptosis. An integral part of its apoptotic and inflammatory programmes is the control of cell shape through modulation of the cytoskeleton, but it is now becoming apparent that this morphogenetic function of TNF signalling is also employed outside inflammatory responses and is shared by the signalling pathways of other members of the TNF-receptor superfamily. Some proteins that are homologous to the components of the TNF signalling pathway, such as the adaptor TNF-receptor-associated factor 4 and the ectodysplasin A receptor (and its ligand and adaptors), have dedicated morphogenetic roles. The mechanism by which TNF signalling affects cell shape is not yet fully understood, but Rho-family GTPases have a central role. The fact that the components of the TNF signalling pathway are evolutionarily old suggests that an ancestral cassette from unicellular organisms has diversified its functions into partly overlapping morphogenetic, inflammatory and apoptotic roles in multicellular higher organisms.