Abiotic stresses, such as drought, salinity, extreme temperatures, chemical toxicity and oxidative stress are serious threats to agriculture and the natural status of the environment. Increased salinization of arable land is expected to have devastating global effects, resulting in 30% land loss within the next 25 years, and up to 50% by the year 2050. Therefore, breeding for drought and salinity stress tolerance in crop plants (for food supply) and in forest trees (a central component of the global ecosystem) should be given high research priority in plant biotechnology programs. Molecular control mechanisms for abiotic stress tolerance are based on the activation and regulation of specific stress-related genes. These genes are involved in the whole sequence of stress responses, such as signaling, transcriptional control, protection of membranes and proteins, and free-radical and toxic-compound scavenging. Recently, research into the molecular mechanisms of stress responses has started to bear fruit and, in parallel, genetic modification of stress tolerance has also shown promising results that may ultimately apply to agriculturally and ecologically important plants. The present review summarizes the recent advances in elucidating stress-response mechanisms and their biotechnological applications. Emphasis is placed on transgenic plants that have been engineered based on different stress-response mechanisms. The review examines the following aspects: regulatory controls, metabolite engineering, ion transport, antioxidants and detoxification, late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) and heat-shock proteins.