Although glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3) is but one of more than a thousand distinct serine/threonine kinases present in the mammalian genome, this enzyme has attracted attention for its role in a diverse range of cellular processes and its positioning at a nexus of several signaling pathways that are important in cancer and other human diseases. The association of GSK-3 with widely different functions, from glycogen metabolism to fruit fly segmentation and slime mold differentiation, was initially perplexing. However, as the context of the biological processes involving this enzyme has been clarified, unifying themes have emerged that begin to explain its pleiotropic nature. Unlike most protein kinases involved in signaling, GSK-3 is active in unstimulated, resting cells. Its activity is inactivated during cellular responses and its substrates therefore tend to be dephosphorylated. As more of these targets have been identified and the effects of their modification by GSK-3 determined, most have been found to be functionally inhibited by GSK-3. Hence, this kinase appears to act as a general repressor, keeping its targets switched off or inaccessible under resting conditions. The rarity of this form of regulation is perhaps related to the diversity of its targets. Over the past decade, the importance of GSK-3 has been established by three significant properties: its remarkable evolutionary conservation, allowing analysis in genetically tractable organisms; its involvement in the Wnt/wingless signaling pathway; and its inhibition by agonists of the prosurvival phosphatidylinositol 3' kinase (P13'K) pathway. This review covers recent advances in understanding the physiological roles of this enzyme, particularly in the context of cancer.