Recent studies in the green alga Chlamydomonas and other flagellated cells have revealed new insights into the relationships between the structure and function of the eukaryotic flagellum. These advances provide a basis from which a unified view can be constructed of how a flagellum operates. In addition, investigations of flagellar assembly offer new perspectives revealing the mechanisms used by cells to create these nanoscale structures. New developments in the molecular biology of Chlamydomonas provide powerful tools for the continued exploration of flagellar biology in this cell. These studies are of interest not only within the field of biology, but also in physics and materials science; the problems of fabrication, assembly, function and regulation of nanoscale machines have been elegantly solved during the evolution of biological systems, providing models from which much remains to be learned.