Resistance to therapeutic drugs encompasses a diverse range of biological systems, which all have a human impact. From the relative simplicity of bacterial cells, fungi and protozoa to the complexity of human cancer cells, resistance has become problematic. Stated in its simplest terms, drug resistance decreases the chance of providing successful treatment against a plethora of diseases. Worryingly, it is a problem that is increasing, and consequently there is a pressing need to develop new and effective classes of drugs. This has provided a powerful stimulus in promoting research on drug resistance and, ultimately, it is hoped that this research will provide novel approaches that will allow the deliberate circumvention of well understood resistance mechanisms. A major mechanism of resistance in both microbes and cancer cells is the membrane protein-catalysed extrusion of drugs from the cell. Resistant cells exploit proton-driven antiporters and/or ATP-driven ABC (ATP-binding cassette) transporters to extrude cytotoxic drugs that usually enter the cell by passive diffusion. Although some of these drug efflux pumps transport specific substrates, many are transporters of multiple substrates. These multidrug pumps can often transport a variety of structurally unrelated hydrophobic compounds, ranging from dyes to lipids. If we are to nullify the effects of efflux-mediated drug resistance, we must first of all understand how these efflux pumps can accommodate a diverse range of compounds and, secondly, how conformational changes in these proteins are coupled to substrate translocation. These are key questions that must be addressed. In this review we report on the advances that have been made in understanding the structure and function of drug efflux pumps.