Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli is an emergent pathogen that can induce haemolytic uraemic syndrome. The toxin has received considerable attention not only from microbiologists but also in the field of cell biology, where it has become a powerful tool to study intracellular trafficking. In this Review, we summarize the Shiga toxin family members and their structures, receptors, trafficking pathways and cellular targets. We discuss how Shiga toxin affects cells not only by inhibiting protein biosynthesis but also through the induction of signalling cascades that lead to apoptosis. Finally, we discuss how Shiga toxins might be exploited in cancer therapy and immunotherapy.