Despite the fundamental importance of E. coli in the manufacture of a wide range of biotechnological and biomedical products, extensive process and/or target optimisation is routinely required in order to achieve functional yields in excess of low mg/l levels. Molecular chaperones and folding catalysts appear to present a panacea for problems of heterologous protein folding in the organism, due largely to their broad substrate range compared with, e. g., protein-specific mutagenesis approaches. Painstaking investigation of chaperone overproduction has, however, met with mixed - and largely unpredictable - results to date. The past 5 years have nevertheless seen an explosion in interest in exploiting the native folding modulators of E. coli, and particularly cocktails thereof, driven largely by the availability of plasmid systems that facilitate simultaneous, non-rational screening of multiple chaperones during recombinant protein expression. As interest in using E. coli to produce recombinant membrane proteins and even glycoproteins grows, approaches to reduce aggregation, delay host cell lysis and optimise expression of difficult-to-express recombinant proteins will become even more critical over the coming years. In this review, we critically evaluate the performance of molecular chaperones and folding catalysts native to E. coli in improving functional production of heterologous proteins in the bacterium and we discuss how they might best be exploited to provide increased amounts of correctly-folded, active protein for biochemical and biophysical studies.