Magnetotactic bacteria derive their magnetic orientation from magnetosomes, which are unique organelles that contain nanometre-sized crystals of magnetic iron minerals. Although these organelles have evident potential for exciting biotechnological applications, a lack of genetically tractable magnetotactic bacteria had hampered the development of such tools; however, in the past decade, genetic studies using two model Magnetospirillum species have revealed much about the mechanisms of magnetosome biogenesis. In this Review, we highlight these new insights and place the molecular mechanisms of magnetosome biogenesis in the context of the complex cell biology of Magnetospirillum spp. Furthermore, we discuss the diverse properties of magnetosome biogenesis in other species of magnetotactic bacteria and consider the value of genetically 'magnetizing' non-magnetotactic bacteria. Finally, we discuss future prospects for this highly interdisciplinary and rapidly advancing field.