Multi-component macromolecular machines contribute to all essential biological processes, from cell motility and signal transduction to information storage and processing. Structural analysis of assemblies at atomic resolution is emerging as the field of structural cell biology. Several recent studies, including those focused on the ribosome, the acrosomal bundle and bacterial flagella, have demonstrated the ability of a hybrid approach that combines imaging, crystallography and computational tools to generate testable atomic models of fundamental biological machines. A complete understanding of cellular and systems biology will require the detailed structural understanding of hundreds of biological machines. The realization of this goal demands a concerted effort to develop and apply new strategies for the systematic identification, isolation, structural characterization and mechanistic analysis of multi-component assemblies at all resolution ranges. The establishment of a database describing the structural and dynamic properties of protein assemblies will provide novel opportunities to define the molecular and atomic mechanisms controlling overall cell physiology.