There is an increased interest in the role of magnesium ions in clinical medicine, nutrition and physiology. The characteristics of the binding of magnesium and calcium ions to various components, macromolecules and biological membranes are described. Magnesium affects many cellular functions, including transport of potassium and calcium ions, and modulates signal transduction, energy metabolism and cell proliferation. The mechanism of cellular uptake and efflux of magnesium, its intracellular transport, intestinal absorption, renal excretion and the effect of hormones on these are reviewed. Magnesium deficiency is not uncommon among the general population: its intake has decreased over the years especially in the western world. The magnesium supplementation or intravenous infusion may be beneficial in various diseased states. Of special interest is the magnesium status in alcoholism, eclampsia, hypertension, atherosclerosis, cardiac diseases, diabetes, and asthma. The development of instrumentation for the assay of ionized magnesium is reviewed, as are the analytical procedures for total magnesium in blood and free magnesium in the cytosol. The improved procedures for the assay of different magnesium states are useful in understanding the role of magnesium in health and disease.