Chromosome cohesion and condensation are essential prerequisites of proper segregation of genomes during mitosis and meiosis, and are supported by two structurally related protein complexes, cohesin and condensin, respectively. At the core of the two complexes lie members of the structural maintenance of chromosomes (SMC) family of ATPases. SMC proteins are also found in most bacterial and archaeal species, implicating the existence of an evolutionarily conserved theme of higher-order chromosome organization and dynamics. SMC dimers adopt a two-armed structure with an ATP-binding cassette (ABC)-like domain at the distal end of each arm. This article reviews recent work on the bacterial and eukaryotic SMC protein complexes, and discusses current understanding of how these uniquely designed protein machines may work at a mechanistic level. It seems most likely that the action of SMC proteins is highly dynamic and plastic, possibly involving a diverse array of intramolecular and intermolecular protein-protein interactions.