The great pace of biomolecular structure determination has provided a plethora of protein structures, but not as many structures of nucleic acids or of their complexes with proteins. The recognition of DNA and RNA molecules by proteins may produce large and relatively stable assemblies (such as the ribosome) or transient complexes (such as DNA clamps sliding through the DNA). These transient interactions are most difficult to characterize, but even in ‘stable’ complexes captured in crystal structures, the dynamics of the whole or part of the assembly pose great technical difficulties in understanding their function. The development and refinement of powerful experimental and computational tools have made it possible to learn a great deal about the relevance of these fleeting events for numerous biological processes. We discuss here the most recent findings and the challenges that lie ahead in the quest for a better understanding of protein–nucleic acid interactions.