Polyketide synthases catalyze the assembly of complex natural products from simple precursors such as propionyl-CoA and methylmalonyl-CoA in a biosynthetic process that closely parallels fatty acid biosynthesis. Like fatty acids, polyketides are assembled by successive decarboxylative condensations of simple precursors. But whereas the intermediates in fatty acid biosynthesis are fully reduced to generate unfunctionalized alkyl chains, the intermediates in polyketide biosynthesis may be only partially processed, giving rise to complex patterns of functional groups. Additional complexity arises from the use of different starter and chain extension substrates, the generation of chiral centers, and further functional group modifications, such as cyclizations. The structural and functional modularity of these multienzyme systems has raised the possibility that polyketide biosynthetic pathways might be rationally reprogrammed by combinatorial manipulation. An essential prerequisite for harnessing this biosynthetic potential is a better understanding of the molecular recognition features of polyketide synthases. Within this decade, a variety of genetic, biochemical, and chemical investigations have yielded insights into the tolerance and specificity of several architecturally different polyketide synthases. The results of these studies, together with their implications for biosynthetic engineering, are summarized in this review.