Coral reefs have suffered long-term decline due to a range of anthropogenic disturbances and are now also under threat from climate change. For appropriate management of these vulnerable and valuable ecosystems it is important to understand the factors and processes that determine their resilience and that of the organisms inhabiting them, as well as those that have led to existing patterns of coral reef biodiversity. The scleractinian (stony) corals deposit the structural framework that supports and promotes the maintenance of biological diversity and complexity of coral reefs, and as such, are major components of these ecosystems. The success of reef-building corals is related to their obligate symbiotic association with dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium. These one-celled algal symbionts (zooxanthellae) live in the endodermal tissues of their coral host, provide most of the host's energy budget and promote rapid calcification. Furthermore, zooxanthellae are the main primary producers on coral reefs due to the oligotrophic nature of the surrounding waters. In this review paper, we summarize and critically evaluate studies that have employed genetics and/or molecular biology in examining questions relating to the evolution and ecology of reef-building corals and their algal endosymbionts, and that bear relevance to coral reef conservation. We discuss how these studies can focus future efforts, and examine how these approaches enhance our understanding of the resilience of reef-building corals.