The results of more than three decades of work indicate that zinc deficiency rapidly diminishes antibody- and cell-mediated responses in both humans and animals. The moderate deficiencies in zinc noted in sickle cell anemia, renal disease, chronic gastrointestinal disorders and acrodermatitis enteropathica; subjects with human immunodeficiency virus; children with diarrhea; and elderly persons can greatly alter host defense systems, leading to increases in opportunistic infections and mortality rates. Conversely, short periods of zinc supplementation substantially improve immune defense in individuals with these diseases. Mouse models demonstrate that 30 d of suboptimal intake of zinc can lead to 30-80% losses in defense capacity. Collectively, the data clearly demonstrate that immune integrity is tightly linked to zinc status. Lymphopenia and thymic atrophy, which were the early hallmarks of zinc deficiency, are now known to be due to high losses of precursor T and B cells in the bone marrow. This ultimately leads to lymphopenia or a failure to replenish the lymphocytic system. Glucocorticoid-mediated apoptosis induced by zinc deficiency causes down-regulation of lymphopoiesis. Indeed, zinc itself can modulate death processes in precursor lymphocytes. Finally, there is substantial evidence that zinc supplementation may well reduce the impact of many of the aforementioned diseases by preventing the dismantling of the immune system. The latter represents an important area for research.