SMC (structural maintenance of chromosomes) complexes - which include condensin, cohesin and the SMC5-SMC6 complex - are major components of chromosomes in all living organisms, from bacteria to humans. These ring-shaped protein machines, which are powered by ATP hydrolysis, topologically encircle DNA. With their ability to hold more than one strand of DNA together, SMC complexes control a plethora of chromosomal activities. Notable among these are chromosome condensation and sister chromatid cohesion. Moreover, SMC complexes have an important role in DNA repair. Recent mechanistic insight into the function and regulation of these universal chromosomal machines enables us to propose molecular models of chromosome structure, dynamics and function, illuminating one of the fundamental entities in biology.