Since the 1960s, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has emerged, disseminated globally and become a leading cause of bacterial infections in both health-care and community settings. However, there is marked geographical variation in MRSA burden owing to several factors, including differences in local infection control practices and pathogen-specific characteristics of the circulating clones. Different MRSA clones have resulted from the independent acquisition of staphylococcal cassette chromosome mec (SCCmec), which contains genes encoding proteins that render the bacterium resistant to most β-lactam antibiotics (such as methicillin), by several S. aureus clones. The success of MRSA is a consequence of the extensive arsenal of virulence factors produced by S. aureus combined with β-lactam resistance and, for most clones, resistance to other antibiotic classes. Clinical manifestations of MRSA range from asymptomatic colonization of the nasal mucosa to mild skin and soft tissue infections to fulminant invasive disease with high mortality. Although treatment options for MRSA are limited, several new antimicrobials are under development. An understanding of colonization dynamics, routes of transmission, risk factors for progression to infection and conditions that promote the emergence of resistance will enable optimization of strategies to effectively control MRSA. Vaccine candidates are also under development and could become an effective prevention measure.