Pancreatic beta cells differ in terms of glucose responsiveness, insulin secretion and proliferative capacity; however, the molecular pathways that regulate this cellular heterogeneity are unknown. We have identified the Wnt–planar cell polarity (PCP) effector Flattop (FLTP) as a biomarker that identifies mature beta cells in the islets of Langerhans. Interestingly, three-dimensional architecture and Wnt–PCP ligands are sufficient to trigger mouse and human beta cell maturation. These results highlight the fact that novel biomarkers shed light on the long-standing mystery of beta cell heterogeneity and identify the Wnt–PCP pathway as triggering beta cell maturation. Understanding heterogeneity in the islets of Langerhans might allow targeting of beta cell subpopulations for regenerative therapy and provide building principles for stem cell-derived islets. This review summarises a presentation given at the ‘Can we make a better beta cell?’ symposium at the 2015 annual meeting of the EASD. It is accompanied by two other reviews on topics from this symposium (by Amin Ardestani and Kathrin Maedler, DOI: 10.1007/s00125-016-3892-9, and by Harry Heimberg and colleagues, DOI: 10.1007/s00125-016-3879-6) and a commentary by the Session Chair, Shanta Persaud (DOI: 10.1007/s00125-016-3870-2).