Actinomycetes produce many of the drugs essential for human and animal health as well as crop protection. Genome sequencing projects launched over the past two decades reveal dozens of cryptic natural product biosynthetic gene clusters in each actinomycete genome that are not expressed under regular laboratory conditions. This so-called ‘chemical dark matter’ represents a potentially rich untapped resource for drug discovery in the genomic era. Through improved understanding of natural product biosynthetic logic coupled with the development of bioinformatic and genetic tools, we are increasingly able to access this ‘dark matter’ using a wide variety of strategies with downstream potential application in drug development. In this review, we discuss recent research progress in the field of cloning of natural product biosynthetic gene clusters and their heterologous expression in validating the potential of this methodology to drive next-generation drug discovery.