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Aphids display an abundance of adaptations that are not easily studied in existing model systems. Here we review the biology of a new genomic model system, the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. We then discuss several phenomena that are particularly accessible to study in the pea aphid: the developmental genetic basis of polyphenisms, aphid–bacterial symbioses, the genetics of adaptation and mechanisms of virus transmission. The pea aphid can be maintained in the laboratory and natural populations can be studied in the field. These properties allow controlled experiments to be performed on problems of direct relevance to natural aphid populations. Combined with new genomic approaches, the pea aphid is poised to become an important model system for understanding the molecular and developmental basis of many ecologically and evolutionarily relevant problems.