The treatment of renal failure has seen little change in the past 70 years. Patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) are treated with renal replacement therapy, including dialysis or organ transplantation. The growing imbalance between the availability of donor organs and prevalence of ESRD is pushing an increasing number of patients to undergo dialysis. Although the prospect of new treatment options for patients through regenerative medicine has long been suggested, advances in the generation of human kidney cell types through the directed differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells over the past 2 years have brought this prospect closer to delivery. These advances are the result of careful research into mammalian embryogenesis. By understanding the decision points made within the embryo to pattern the kidney, it is now possible to recreate self-organizing kidney tissues in vitro. In this Review, we describe the key decision points in kidney development and how these decisions have been mimicked experimentally. Recreation of human nephrons from human pluripotent stem cells opens the door to patient-derived disease models and personalized drug and toxicity screening. In the long term, we hope that these efforts will also result in the generation of bioengineered organs for the treatment of kidney disease.