Anyone who ever took an electronics laboratory class will be familiar with the fundamental passive circuit elements: the resistor, the capacitor and the inductor. However, in 1971 Leon Chua reasoned from symmetry arguments that there should be a fourth fundamental element, which he called a memristor (short for memory resistor)1. Although he showed that such an element has many interesting and valuable circuit properties, until now no one has presented either a useful physical model or an example of a memristor. Here we show, using a simple analytical example, that memristance arises naturally in nanoscale systems in which solid-state electronic and ionic transport are coupled under an external bias voltage. These results serve as the foundation for understanding a wide range of hysteretic current–voltage behaviour observed in many nanoscale electronic devices2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 that involve the motion of charged atomic or molecular species, in particular certain titanium dioxide cross-point switches20, 21, 22.