Abstract Over the past decade the purine riboswitch, and in particular its nucleobase-binding aptamer domain, has emerged as an important model system for exploring various aspects of RNA structure and function. Its relatively small size, structural simplicity and readily observable activity enable application of a wide variety of experimental approaches towards the study of this RNA. These analyses have yielded important insights into small molecule recognition, co-transcriptional folding and secondary structural switching, and conformational dynamics that serve as a paradigm for other RNAs. In this article, the current state of understanding of the purine riboswitch family and how this growing knowledge base is starting to be exploited in the creation of novel RNA devices are examined. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Riboswitches.