Inherited germline mutations in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 confer a significant lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Defining how these two genes function at the cellular level is essential for understanding their role in tumour suppression. Although BRCA1 and BRCA2 were independently cloned over 10 years ago, it is only in the last few years that significant progress has been made towards understanding their function in cells. It is now widely accepted that both genes play critical roles in the maintenance of genome stability. Evidence implicates BRCA2 as an integral component of the homologous recombination machinery, whereas BRCA1 is an E3 ubiquitin ligase that has an impact on DNA repair, transcriptional regulation, cell-cycle progression and meiotic sex chromosome inactivation. In this article, I will review the most recent advances and provide a perspective of potential future directions in this field.