Membrane nanopores-hollow nanoscale barrels that puncture biological or synthetic membranes-have become powerful tools in chemical- and biosensing, and have achieved notable success in portable DNA sequencing. The pores can be self-assembled from a variety of materials, including proteins, peptides, synthetic organic compounds and, more recently, DNA. But which building material is best for which application, and what is the relationship between pore structure and function? In this Review, I critically compare the characteristics of the different building materials, and explore the influence of the building material on pore structure, dynamics and function. I also discuss the future challenges of developing nanopore technology, and consider what the next-generation of nanopore structures could be and where further practical applications might emerge.