There is a global diabetes epidemic correlating with an increase in obesity. This coincidence may lead to a rise in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. There is also an as yet unexplained increase in the incidence of type 1 diabetes, which is not related to adiposity. Whilst improved diabetes care has substantially improved diabetes outcomes, the disease remains a common cause of working age adult-onset blindness. Diabetic retinopathy is the most frequently occurring complication of diabetes; it is greatly feared by many diabetes patients. There are multiple risk factors and markers for the onset and progression of diabetic retinopathy, yet residual risk remains. Screening for diabetic retinopathy is recommended to facilitate early detection and treatment. Common biomarkers of diabetic retinopathy and its risk in clinical practice today relate to the visualization of the retinal vasculature and measures of glycemia, lipids, blood pressure, body weight, smoking, and pregnancy status. Greater knowledge of novel biomarkers and mediators of diabetic retinopathy, such as those related to inflammation and angiogenesis, has contributed to the development of additional therapeutics, in particular for late-stage retinopathy, including intra-ocular corticosteroids and intravitreal vascular endothelial growth factor inhibitors (‘anti-VEGFs’) agents. Unfortunately, in spite of a range of treatments (including laser photocoagulation, intraocular steroids, and anti-VEGF agents, and more recently oral fenofibrate, a PPAR-alpha agonist lipid-lowering drug), many patients with diabetic retinopathy do not respond well to current therapeutics. Therefore, more effective treatments for diabetic retinopathy are necessary. New analytical techniques, in particular those related to molecular markers, are accelerating progress in diabetic retinopathy research. Given the increasing incidence and prevalence of diabetes, and the limited capacity of healthcare systems to screen and treat diabetic retinopathy, there is need to reliably identify and triage people with diabetes. Biomarkers may facilitate a better understanding of diabetic retinopathy, and contribute to the development of novel treatments and new clinical strategies to prevent vision loss in people with diabetes. This article reviews key aspects related to biomarker research, and focuses on some specific biomarkers relevant to diabetic retinopathy.