Proteins and protein-based assemblies represent the most structurally and functionally diverse molecules found in nature. Protein cages, viruses and bacterial microcompartments are highly organized structures that are composed primarily of protein building blocks and play important roles in molecular ion storage, nucleic acid packaging and catalysis. The outer and inner surface of protein cages can be modified, either chemically or genetically, and the internal cavity can be used to template, store and arrange molecular cargo within a defined space. Owing to their structural, morphological, chemical and thermal diversity, protein cages have been investigated extensively for applications in nanotechnology, nanomedicine and materials science. Here we provide a concise overview of the most common icosahedral viral and nonviral assemblies, their role in nature, and why they are highly attractive scaffolds for the encapsulation of functional materials.