Multidrug (MDR)- and extensively drug-resistant (XDR) tuberculosis (TB) impose a heavy toll of human suffering and social costs. Controlling drug-resistant TB is a complex global public health challenge. Basic science advances including elucidation of the genetic basis of resistance have enabled development of new assays that are transforming the diagnosis of MDR-TB. Molecular epidemiological approaches have provided new insights into the natural history of TB with important implications for drug resistance. In the future, progress in understanding Mycobacterium tuberculosis strain-specific human immune responses, integration of systems biology approaches with traditional epidemiology and insight into the biology of mycobacterial persistence have potential to be translated into new tools for diagnosis and treatment of MDR- and XDR-TB. We review recent basic sciences developments that have contributed or may contribute to improved public health response.