Protein kinase CK2 ('casein kinase II') has traditionally been classified as a messenger-independent protein serine/threonine kinase that is typically found in tetrameric complexes consisting of two catalytic (alpha and/or alpha') subunits and two regulatory beta subunits. Accumulated biochemical and genetic evidence indicates that CK2 has a vast array of candidate physiological targets and participates in a complex series of cellular functions, including the maintenance of cell viability. This review summarizes current knowledge of the structural and enzymic features of CK2, and discusses advances that challenge traditional views of this enzyme. For example, the recent demonstrations that individual CK2 subunits exist outside tetrameric complexes and that CK2 displays dual-specificity kinase activity raises new prospects for the precise elucidation of its regulation and cellular functions. This review also discusses a number of the mechanisms that contribute to the regulation of CK2 in cells, and will highlight emerging insights into the role of CK2 in cellular decisions of life and death. In this latter respect, recent evidence suggests that CK2 can exert an anti-apoptotic role by protecting regulatory proteins from caspase-mediated degradation. The mechanistic basis of the observation that CK2 is essential for viability may reside in part in this ability to protect cellular proteins from caspase action. Furthermore, this anti-apoptotic function of CK2 may contribute to its ability to participate in transformation and tumorigenesis.