Basic research has provided a much better understanding of the genetic networks and regulatory hierarchies in plants. To meet the challenges of agriculture, we must be able to rapidly translate this knowledge into generating improved plants. Therefore, in this Review, we discuss advanced tools that are currently available for use in plant biotechnology to produce new products in plants and to generate plants with new functions. These tools include synthetic promoters, 'tunable' transcription factors, genome-editing tools and site-specific recombinases. We also review some tools with the potential to enable crop improvement, such as methods for the assembly and synthesis of large DNA molecules, plant transformation with linked multigenes and plant artificial chromosomes. These genetic technologies should be integrated to realize their potential for applications to pressing agricultural and environmental problems.