Microbial production of acetone and butanol was one of the first large-scale industrial fermentation processes of global importance. During the first part of the 20th century, it was indeed the second largest fermentation process, superseded in importance only by the ethanol fermentation. After a rapid decline after the 1950s, acetone-butanol-ethanol (ABE) fermentation has recently gained renewed interest in the context of biorefinery approaches for the production of fuels and chemicals from renewable resources. The availability of new methods and knowledge opens many new doors for industrial microbiology, and a comprehensive view on this process is worthwhile due to the new interest. This thematic issue of FEMS Microbiology Letters, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the first industrial exploitation of Chaim Weizmann's ABE fermentation process, covers the main aspects of old and new developments, thereby outlining a model development in biotechnology. All major aspects of industrial microbiology are exemplified by this single process. This includes new technologies, such as the latest developments in metabolic engineering, the exploitation of biodiversity and discoveries of new regulatory systems such as for microbial stress tolerance, as well as technological aspects, such as bio- and down-stream processing.