Free-living cyanobacteria were entrapped by eukaryotic cells ~2 billion years ago, ultimately giving rise to chloroplasts. After a century of debate, the presence of chloroplast DNA was demonstrated in the 1960s. The first chloroplast genomes were sequenced in the 1980s, followed by ~100 vegetable, fruit, cereal, beverage, oil and starch/sugar crop chloroplast genomes in the past three decades. Foreign genes were expressed in isolated chloroplasts or intact plant cells in the late 1980s and stably integrated into chloroplast genomes, with typically maternal inheritance shown in the 1990s. Since then, chloroplast genomes conferred the highest reported levels of tolerance or resistance to biotic or abiotic stress. Although launching products with agronomic traits in important crops using this concept has been elusive, commercial products developed include enzymes used in everyday life from processing fruit juice, to enhancing water absorption of cotton fibre or removal of stains as laundry detergents and in dye removal in the textile industry. Plastid genome sequences have revealed the framework of green plant phylogeny as well as the intricate history of plastid genome transfer events to other eukaryotes. Discordant historical signals among plastid genes suggest possible variable constraints across the plastome and further understanding and mitigation of these constraints may yield new opportunities for bioengineering. In this review, we trace the evolutionary history of chloroplasts, status of autonomy and recent advances in products developed for everyday use or those advanced to the clinic, including treatment of COVID-19 patients and SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.