An important function of microtubules is to move cellular structures such as chromosomes, mitotic spindles and other organelles around inside cells. This is achieved by attaching the ends of microtubules to cellular structures; as the microtubules grow and shrink, the structures are pushed or pulled around the cell. How do the ends of microtubules couple to cellular structures, and how does this coupling regulate the stability and distribution of the microtubules? It is now clear that there are at least three properties of a microtubule end: it has alternate structures; it has a biochemical transition defined by GTP hydrolysis; and it forms a distinct target for the binding of specific proteins. These different properties can be unified by thinking of the microtubule as a molecular machine, which switches between growing and shrinking modes. Each mode is associated with a specific end structure on which end-binding proteins can assemble to modulate dynamics and couple the dynamic properties of microtubules to the movement of cellular structures.