Most animals experience some degree of hypoxia and hypothermia during the course of their natural life history either as a consequence of ambient 'exposure' per se or through metabolic, respiratory and/or circulatory insufficiency. A prevailing experimental approach has been to probe tissues from natural models of hypoxia-tolerant and cold-tolerant vertebrates to look for common mechanisms of defence against O(2) lack and hypothermia. The ability to sustain vital cellular functions in severe cases of either condition varies widely amongst the vertebrates. Like humans, the vast majority of mammals are unable to survive prolonged periods of hypothermia or O(2) deprivation owing to irreversible membrane damage and loss of cellular ion homeostasis in vital organs such as the brain and heart. However, numerous hibernating endotherms, neonatal and diving mammals as well as many ectotherms can tolerate prolonged periods that would, in clinical terms, be called asphyxia or deep hypothermia. The key to their survival under such conditions lies in an inherent ability to downregulate their cellular metabolic rate to new hypometabolic steady states in a way that balances the ATP demand and ATP supply pathways.