There are clear theoretical reasons and many well-documented examples which show that repetitive DNA is essential for genome function. Generic repeated signals in the DNA are necessary to format expression of unique coding sequence files and to organise additional functions essential for genome replication and accurate transmission to progeny cells. Repetitive DNA sequence elements are also fundamental to the cooperative molecular interactions forming nucleoprotein complexes. Here, we review the surprising abundance of repetitive DNA in many genomes, describe its structural diversity, and discuss dozens of cases where the functional importance of repetitive elements has been studied in molecular detail. In particular, the fact that repeat elements serve either as initiators or boundaries for heterochromatin domains and provide a significant fraction of scaffolding/matrix attachment regions (S/MARs) suggests that the repetitive component of the genome plays a major architectonic role in higher order physical structuring. Employing an information science model, the ‘functionalist’ perspective on repetitive DNA leads to new ways of thinking about the systemic organisation of cellular genomes and provides several novel possibilities involving repeat elements in evolutionarily significant genome reorganisation. These ideas may facilitate the interpretation of comparisons between sequenced genomes, where the repetitive DNA component is often greater than the coding sequence component.