Molecular ecology methods are now well established for the culture-independent characterization of complex bacterial communities associated with various environmental and animal habitats and are revealing the extent of their diversity. By comparison, it has become clear that only a small minority of microorganisms are readily cultivated in vitro, with the majority of all bacteria remaining ‘unculturable’ using standard methods. Yet, it is only through the isolation of bacterial species in pure culture that they may be fully characterized, both for their physiological and pathological properties. Hence, the endeavour to devise novel cultivation methods for microorganisms that appear to be inherently resistant to artificial culture is a most important one. This minireview discusses the possible reasons for ‘unculturability’ and evaluates advances in the cultivation of previously unculturable bacteria from complex bacterial communities. Methods include the use of dilute nutrient media particularly suited for the growth of bacteria adapted to oligotrophic conditions, and the provision of simulated natural environmental conditions for bacterial culture. This has led to the recovery of ‘unculturables’ from soil and aquatic environments, likely to be due to the inclusion of essential nutrients and/or signalling molecules from the native environment.