The balance between cell proliferation and programmed cell death (apoptosis) determines body patterns during animal development and controls compartment sizes, tissue architecture and remodeling. The removal of primordial structures by apoptosis allows the organism to develop sex specifically and to adapt for novel functions at later stages; apoptosis also limits the size of evolving structures. It is a ubiquitous function that is essential for all cells. Although inappropriate regulation or execution of apoptosis leads to disease, such as cancer, there is now evidence for its great therapeutic potential. This would be particularly true if apoptosis could be targeted at defined cell compartments, rather than acting ubiquitously like chemotherapy. Here, we discuss the potential of nuclear receptor ligands, many of which act through their cognate receptors in defined body compartments as modulators of cell life and death, with special emphasis on the molecular pathways by which these receptors affect cell-cycle progression, survival and apoptosis.