Abiotic stresses increasingly curtail crop yield as a result of global climate change and scarcity of water and nutrients. One way to minimize the negative impact of these factors on yield is to manipulate root system architecture (RSA) towards a distribution of roots in the soil that optimizes water and nutrient uptake. It is now established that most of the genetic variation for RSA is driven by a suite of quantitative trait loci. As we discuss here, marker-assisted selection and quantitative trait loci cloning for RSA are underway, exploiting genomic resources, candidate genes and the knowledge gained from Arabidopsis, rice and other crops. Nonetheless, efficient and accurate phenotyping, modelling and collaboration with breeders remain important challenges, particularly when defining ideal RSA for different crops and target environments.