The vast expansion in recent years of the cellular processes promoted by the endosomal sorting complex required for transport (ESCRT) machinery has reinforced its identity as a modular system that uses multiple adaptors to recruit the core membrane remodelling activity at different intracellular sites and facilitate membrane scission. Functional connections to processes such as the aurora B-dependent abscission checkpoint also highlight the importance of the spatiotemporal regulation of the ESCRT machinery. Here, we summarise the role of ESCRTs in viral budding, and what we have learned about the ESCRT pathway from studying this process. These advances are discussed in the context of areas of cell biology that have been transformed by research in the ESCRT field, including cytokinetic abscission, nuclear envelope resealing and plasma membrane repair.

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