Insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) is a ubiquitous endocrine, paracrine and autocrine polypeptide, which influences cell proliferation and differentiation in many tissues. Classically, IGF-I has been tied to growth hormone (GH) and has often been considered a surrogate marker of overall GH status. The advent of recombinant technology has made possible studies of GH and IGF-I for the treatment of chronic diseases (such as diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis and muscle atrophy) as well as to forestall the aging process. Examples of currently active areas of research include efforts to define the involvement of IGF-I physiology in bone remodeling, atherosclerosis and neoplasia. Recent epidemiological evidence suggests that individuals with IGF-I levels in the 'high normal' range have increased risk of common cancers relative to individuals with levels in the 'low normal' range. These findings have focused renewed attention on the genetic and non-genetic determinants of serum IGF-I levels. It is unlikely that the serum IGF-I level itself is related directly to risk of neoplasia, but it may serve as a surrogate for a variable that is important in epithelial cell carcinogenesis, such as rate of epithelial cell proliferation. We review relatively new data suggesting that adult serum IGF-I levels are under the control of heritable factors apart from GH. Such factors may influence tissue expression of IGF-I as well as serum IGF-I levels, and influence a number of clinically important outcomes, including bone density and risk of neoplasia. The concept that there is little physiological importance in the heterogeneity between individuals regarding IGF-I levels within the broad 'normal' range may require re-assessment.