Because of its location and function, the liver is continuously exposed to a large antigenic load that includes pathogens, toxins, tumor cells and harmless dietary antigens. The range of local immune mechanisms required to cope with this diverse immunological challenge is now being appreciated. The liver has an "epithelial constitution" and contains large numbers of phagocytic cells, antigen-presenting cells and lymphocytes and is a site for the production of cytokines, complement components and acute phase proteins. In this review, we focus on the hepatic lymphoid system, which is currently emerging as an important arm of the immune system in the liver for targeting pathogens as well as for the recognition of cells that are modified as a result of infection or tumor transformation. We show that this organ contains a heterogeneity of lymphoid cells with diverse recognition mechanisms and functions. There are conventional T lymphocytes that use clonotypic receptors to identify and respond to antigenic peptides presented in the context of polymorphic class I and class II major histocompatibilty complex (MHC) molecules. But these cells are outnumbered by lymphoid cells that recognize common structures using receptors with limited diversity. These mediators of innate immunity against infectious pathogens and malignant cells respond immediately to stimuli and function as a temporal (and perhaps evolutionary) bridge for the adaptive immune response.