Insulators are regulatory elements that establish independent domains of transcriptional activity within eukaryotic genomes. Insulators possess two properties: an anti-enhancer activity that blocks enhancer-promoter communication, and an anti-silencer activity that prevents the spread of repressive chromatin. Some insulators are composite elements with separable activities, while others employ a single mechanism to confer both properties. Recent studies focus on elucidating the molecular mechanisms of insulator function. Emerging themes support connections between insulators, transcriptional activators and topological chromosomal domains. Understanding these processes will provide insights into prevention of inappropriate regulatory interactions, knowledge that can be applied to gene therapies.