Microtubule dynamics are fundamental for many aspects of cell physiology, but their mechanistic underpinnings remain unclear despite 40 years of intense research. In recent years, the continued union of reconstitution biochemistry, structural biology, and modeling has yielded important discoveries that deepen our understanding of microtubule dynamics. These studies, which we review here, underscore the importance of GTP hydrolysis-induced changes in tubulin structure as microtubules assemble, and highlight the fact that each aspect of microtubule behavior is the output of complex, multi-step processes. Although this body of work moves us closer to appreciating the key features of microtubule biochemistry that drive dynamic instability, the divide between our understanding of microtubules in isolation versus within the cellular milieu remains vast. Bridging this gap will serve as fertile grounds of cytoskeleton-focused research for many years to come.