Inspired by the biological processes of molecular recognition and transportation across membranes, nanopore techniques have evolved in recent decades as ultrasensitive analytical tools for individual molecules. In particular, nanopore-based single-molecule DNA/RNA sequencing has advanced genomic and transcriptomic research due to the portability, lower costs and long reads of these methods. Nanopore applications, however, extend far beyond nucleic acid sequencing. In this Review, we present an overview of the broad applications of nanopores in molecular sensing and sequencing, chemical catalysis and biophysical characterization. We highlight the prospects of applying nanopores for single-protein analysis and sequencing, single-molecule covalent chemistry, clinical sensing applications for single-molecule liquid biopsy, and the use of synthetic biomimetic nanopores as experimental models for natural systems. We suggest that nanopore technologies will continue to be explored to address a number of scientific challenges as control over pore design improves.