The AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is a sensor of cellular energy status that regulates cellular and whole-body energy balance. A recently reported crystal structure has illuminated the complex regulatory mechanisms by which AMP and ADP cause activation of AMPK, involving phosphorylation by the upstream kinase LKB1. Once activated by falling cellular energy status, AMPK activates catabolic pathways that generate ATP whilst inhibiting anabolic pathways and other cellular processes that consume ATP. A role of AMPK is implicated in many human diseases. Mutations in the ?2 subunit cause heart disease due to excessive glycogen storage in cardiac myocytes, leading to ventricular pre-excitation. AMPK-activating drugs reverse many of the metabolic defects associated with insulin resistance, and recent findings suggest that the insulin-sensitizing effects of the widely used antidiabetic drug metformin are mediated by AMPK. The upstream kinase LKB1 is a tumour suppressor, and AMPK may exert many of its antitumour effects. AMPK activation promotes the oxidative metabolism typical of quiescent cells, rather than the aerobic glycolysis observed in tumour cells and cells involved in inflammation, explaining in part why AMPK activators have both antitumour and anti-inflammatory effects. Salicylate (the major in vivo metabolite of aspirin) activates AMPK, and this could be responsible for at least some of the anticancer and anti-inflammatory effects of aspirin. In addition to metformin and salicylates, novel drugs that modulate AMPK are likely to enter clinical trials soon. Finally, AMPK may be involved in viral infection: downregulation of AMPK during hepatitis C virus infection appears to be essential for efficient viral replication.