The ultimate goal of bottom-up synthetic biology is recreating life in its simplest form. However, in its quest to find the minimal functional units of life, this field contributes more than its main aim by also offering a range of tools for asking, and experimentally approaching, biological questions. This Review focusses on how bottom-up reconstitution has furthered our understanding of cell biology. Studying cell biological processes in vitro has a long tradition, but only recent technological advances have enabled researchers to reconstitute increasingly complex biomolecular systems by controlling their multi-component composition and their spatiotemporal arrangements. We illustrate this progress using the example of cytoskeletal processes. Our understanding of these has been greatly enhanced by reconstitution experiments, from the first in vitro experiments 70 years ago to recent work on minimal cytoskeleton systems (including this Special Issue of Journal of Cell Science). Importantly, reconstitution approaches are not limited to the cytoskeleton field. Thus, we also discuss progress in other areas, such as the shaping of biomembranes and cellular signalling, and prompt the reader to add their subfield of cell biology to this list in the future.