The galectins are a family of carbohydrate-binding proteins that are distributed widely in metazoan organisms. Each galectin exhibits a specific pattern of expression in various cells and tissues, and expression is often closely regulated during development. Although these proteins are found mainly in the cell cytoplasm, some are secreted from cells and interact with appropriately glycosylated proteins at the cell surface or within the extracellular matrix. These receptors include cell-adhesion molecules such as integrins, and matrix glycoproteins such as laminin and fibronectin isoforms. Recent studies have increased understanding of the roles of the galectins in regulating cell-cell and cell-matrix adhesion. These interactions are critically involved in modulation of normal cellular motility and polarity and during tissue formation, and loss of adhesive function is implicated in several disease states including tumour progression, inflammation and cystic development in branching epithelia such as kidney tubules. This review discusses recent progress in defining the specificities and mechanisms of action of secreted galectins as multifunctional cell regulators.