Glutamine is normally considered to be a nonessential amino acid. However, recent studies have provided evidence that glutamine may become "conditionally essential" during inflammatory conditions such as infection and injury. It is now well documented that under appropriate conditions, glutamine is essential for cell proliferation, that it can act as a respiratory fuel and that it can enhance the function of stimulated immune cells. Studies thus far have determined the effect of extracellular glutamine concentration on lymphocyte proliferation and cytokine production, macrophage phagocytic plus secretory activities and neutrophil bacterial killing. Other cells of the immune system remain to be studied. The high rate of glutamine utilization and its importance to the function of lymphocytes, macrophages and neutrophils have raised the question "why glutamine?" because these cells have access to a variety of metabolic fuels both in vivo and in vitro. I have attempted to answer this question in this article. Additionally, knowledge of the rate of utilization and the pathway of metabolism of glutamine by cells of the immune system raises some intriguing questions concerning therapeutic manipulation of utilization of this amino acid such that the proliferative, phagocytic and secretory capacities of cells of the defense system may be beneficially altered. Evidence to support the hypothesis that glutamine is beneficially immunomodulatory in animal models of infection and trauma, as well as trauma in humans, is provided.