BACKGROUND: Phosphorus (P) is an essential element for plant growth and development but it is often a limiting nutrient in soils. Hence, P acquisition from soil by plant roots is a subject of considerable interest in agriculture, ecology and plant root biology. Root architecture, with its shape and structured development, can be considered as an evolutionary response to scarcity of resources. SCOPE: This review discusses the significance of root architecture development in response to low P availability and its beneficial effects on alleviation of P stress. It also focuses on recent progress in unravelling cellular, physiological and molecular mechanisms in root developmental adaptation to P starvation. The progress in a more detailed understanding of these mechanisms might be used for developing strategies that build upon the observed explorative behaviour of plant roots. CONCLUSIONS: The role of root architecture in alleviation of P stress is well documented. However, this paper describes how plants adjust their root architecture to low-P conditions through inhibition of primary root growth, promotion of lateral root growth, enhancement of root hair development and cluster root formation, which all promote P acquisition by plants. The mechanisms for activating alterations in root architecture in response to P deprivation depend on changes in the localized P concentration, and transport of or sensitivity to growth regulators such as sugars, auxins, ethylene, cytokinins, nitric oxide (NO), reactive oxygen species (ROS) and abscisic acid (ABA). In the process, many genes are activated, which in turn trigger changes in molecular, physiological and cellular processes. As a result, root architecture is modified, allowing plants to adapt effectively to the low-P environment. This review provides a framework for understanding how P deficiency alters root architecture, with a focus on integrated physiological and molecular signalling.