The capacity of readily exchanging electrons makes iron not only essential for fundamental cell functions, but also a potential catalyst for chemical reactions involving free-radical formation and subsequent oxidative stress and cell damage. Cellular iron levels are therefore carefully regulated in order to maintain an adequate substrate while also minimizing the pool of potentially toxic 'free iron'. Iron homoeostasis is controlled through several genes, an increasing number of which have been found to contain non-coding sequences [i.e. the iron-responsive elements (IREs)] which are recognized at the mRNA level by two cytoplasmic iron-regulatory proteins (IRP-1 and IRP-2). The IRPs belong to the aconitase superfamily. By means of an Fe-S-cluster-dependent switch, IRP-1 can function as an mRNA-binding protein or as an enzyme that converts citrate into isocitrate. Although structurally and functionally similar to IRP-1, IRP-2 does not seem to assemble a cluster nor to possess aconitase activity; moreover, it has a distinct pattern of tissue expression and is modulated by means of proteasome-mediated degradation. In response to fluctuations in the level of the 'labile iron pool', IRPs act as key regulators of cellular iron homoeostasis as a result of the translational control of the expression of a number of iron metabolism-related genes. Conversely, various agents and conditions may affect IRP activity, thereby modulating iron and oxygen radical levels in different pathobiological settings. As the number of mRNAs regulated through IRE-IRP interactions keeps growing, the definition of IRPs as iron-regulatory proteins may in the near future become limiting as their role expands to other essential metabolic pathways.