Members of the DEAD box family of RNA helicases, which are characterised by the presence of twelve conserved motifs (including the signature D-E-A-D motif) within a structurally conserved 'helicase' core, are involved in all aspects of RNA metabolism. Apart from unwinding RNA duplexes, which established these proteins as RNA helicases, DEAD box proteins have been shown to also catalyse RNA annealing and to displace proteins from RNA. DEAD box proteins generally act as components of large multi-protein complexes and it is thought that interactions, via their divergent N- and C-terminal extensions, with other factors in the complexes may be responsible for the many different functions attributed to these proteins. In addition to their established crucial roles in the manipulation of RNA structure, it is becoming increasingly clear that several members of the DEAD box family act as regulators of transcription. In this review I shall focus on DDX5 (p68) and the highly related DDX17 (p72), two proteins for which there is a large body of evidence demonstrating that they function in transcriptional regulation. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: The Biology of RNA helicases - Modulation for life.