Cas9 and Cas12a are multidomain CRISPR-associated nucleases that can be programmed with a guide RNA to bind and cleave complementary DNA targets. The guide RNA sequence can be varied, making these effector enzymes versatile tools for genome editing and gene regulation applications. While Cas9 is currently the best-characterized and most widely used nuclease for such purposes, Cas12a (previously named Cpf1) has recently emerged as an alternative for Cas9. Cas9 and Cas12a have distinct evolutionary origins and exhibit different structural architectures, resulting in distinct molecular mechanisms. Here we compare the structural and mechanistic features that distinguish Cas9 and Cas12a, and describe how these features modulate their activity. We discuss implications for genome editing, and how they may influence the choice of Cas9 or Cas12a for specific applications. Finally, we review recent studies in which Cas12a has been utilized as a genome editing tool. This article is categorized under: RNA Interactions with Proteins and Other Molecules > Protein-RNA Interactions: Functional Implications Regulatory RNAs/RNAi/Riboswitches > Biogenesis of Effector Small RNAs RNA Interactions with Proteins and Other Molecules > RNA-Protein Complexes.