Neurotransmitter release is mediated by exocytosis of synaptic vesicles at the presynaptic active zone of nerve terminals. To support rapid and repeated rounds of release, synaptic vesicles undergo a trafficking cycle. The focal point of the vesicle cycle is Ca2+-triggered exocytosis that is followed by different routes of endocytosis and recycling. Recycling then leads to the docking and priming of the vesicles for another round of exo- and endocytosis. Recent studies have led to a better definition than previously available of how Ca2+ triggers exocytosis and how vesicles recycle. In particular, insight into how Munc18-1 collaborates with SNARE proteins in fusion, how the vesicular Ca2+ sensor synaptotagmin 1 triggers fast release, and how the vesicular Rab3 protein regulates release by binding to the active zone proteins RIM1 alpha and RIM2 alpha has advanced our understanding of neurotransmitter release. The present review attempts to relate these molecular data with physiological results in an emerging view of nerve terminals as macromolecular machines.