Over the last 10 years substantial progress has been made in our understanding of the genetic basis for type 2 diabetes and related traits. These developments have been facilitated by technological advancements that have allowed comprehensive genome-wide assessments of the impact of common genetic variation on disease risk. Current efforts are now focused on extending this to genetic variants in the rare and low-frequency spectrum by capitalising on next-generation sequencing technologies. This review discusses the important contributions that studies in isolated populations are making to this effort for diabetes and metabolic disease, drawing on specific examples from populations in Greece and Greenland. This review summarises a presentation given at the ‘Exciting news in genetics of diabetes’ symposium at the 2015 annual meeting of the EASD, with topics presented by Eleftheria Zeggini and Torben Hansen, and an overview by the Session Chair, Anna Gloyn.