Proteins provide much of the scaffolding for life, as well as undertaking a variety of essential catalytic reactions. These characteristic functions have led us to presuppose that proteins are in general functional only when well structured and correctly folded. As we begin to explore the repertoire of possible protein sequences inherent in the human and other genomes, two stark facts that belie this supposition become clear: firstly, the number of apparent open reading frames in the human genome is significantly smaller than appears to be necessary to code for all of the diverse proteins in higher organisms, and secondly that a significant proportion of the protein sequences that would be coded by the genome would not be expected to form stable three-dimensional (3D) structures. Clearly the genome must include coding for a multitude of alternative forms of proteins, some of which may be partly or fully disordered or incompletely structured in their functional states. At the same time as this likelihood was recognized, experimental studies also began to uncover examples of important protein molecules and domains that were incompletely structured or completely disordered in solution, yet remained perfectly functional. In the ensuing years, we have seen an explosion of experimental and genome-annotation studies that have mapped the extent of the intrinsic disorder phenomenon and explored the possible biological rationales for its widespread occurrence. Answers to the question 'why would a particular domain need to be unstructured?' are as varied as the systems where such domains are found. This review provides a survey of recent new directions in this field, and includes an evaluation of the role not only of intrinsically disordered proteins but also of partially structured and highly dynamic members of the disorder-order continuum.