Cystic fibrosis is an autosomal recessive, monogenetic disorder caused by mutations in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene. The gene defect was first described 25 years ago and much progress has been made since then in our understanding of how CFTR mutations cause disease and how this can be addressed therapeutically. CFTR is a transmembrane protein that transports ions across the surface of epithelial cells. CFTR dysfunction affects many organs; however, lung disease is responsible for the vast majority of morbidity and mortality in patients with cystic fibrosis. Prenatal diagnostics, newborn screening and new treatment algorithms are changing the incidence and the prevalence of the disease. Until recently, the standard of care in cystic fibrosis treatment focused on preventing and treating complications of the disease; now, novel treatment strategies directly targeting the ion channel abnormality are becoming available and it will be important to evaluate how these treatments affect disease progression and the quality of life of patients. In this Primer, we summarize the current knowledge, and provide an outlook on how cystic fibrosis clinical care and research will be affected by new knowledge and therapeutic options in the near future. For an illustrated summary of this Primer, visit: http://go.nature.com/4VrefN.