Increases in the intracellular levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS), frequently referred to as oxidative stress, represents a potentially toxic insult which if not counteracted will lead to membrane dysfunction, DNA damage and inactivation of proteins. Chronic oxidative stress has numerous pathological consequences including cancer, arthritis and neurodegenerative disease. Glutathione-associated metabolism is a major mechanism for cellular protection against agents which generate oxidative stress. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the glutathione tripeptide is central to a complex multifaceted detoxification system, where there is substantial inter-dependence between separate component members. Glutathione participates in detoxification at several different levels, and may scavenge free radicals, reduce peroxides or be conjugated with electrophilic compounds. Thus, glutathione provides the cell with multiple defences not only against ROS but also against their toxic products. This article discusses how glutathione biosynthesis, glutathione peroxidases, glutathione S-transferases and glutathione S-conjugate efflux pumps function in an integrated fashion to allow cellular adaption to oxidative stress. Co-ordination of this response is achieved, at least in part, through the antioxidant responsive element (ARE) which is found in the promoters of many of the genes that are inducible by oxidative and chemical stress. Transcriptional activation through this enhancer appears to be mediated by basic leucine zipper transcription factors such as Nrf and small Maf proteins. The nature of the intracellular sensor(s) for ROS and thiol-active chemicals which induce genes through the ARE is described. Gene activation through the ARE appears to account for the enhanced antioxidant and detoxification capacity of normal cells effected by many cancer chemopreventive agents. In certain instances it may also account for acquired resistance of tumours to cancer chemotherapeutic drugs. It is therefore clear that determining the mechanisms involved in regulation of ARE-driven gene expression has enormous medical implications.