Leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) is a polyfunctional glycoprotein cytokine whose inducible production can occur in many, perhaps all, tissues. LIF acts on responding cells by binding to a heterodimeric membrane receptor composed of a low-affinity LIF-specific receptor and the gp130 receptor chain also used as the receptor for interleukin-6, oncostatin M, cardiotrophin-1, and ciliary neurotrophic factor. LIF is essential for blastocyst implantation and the normal development of hippocampal and olfactory receptor neurons. LIF is used extensively in experimental biology because of its key ability to induce embryonic stem cells to retain their totipotentiality. LIF has a wide array of actions, including acting as a stimulus for platelet formation, proliferation of some hematopoietic cells, bone formation, adipocyte lipid transport, adrenocorticotropic hormone production, neuronal survival and formation, muscle satellite cell proliferation, and acute phase production by hepatocytes. Unwanted actions of LIF can be minimized by circulating soluble LIF receptors and by intracellular suppression by suppressors of cytokine-signaling family members. However, the outstanding problems remain of how the induction of LIF is mediated in response to demands from such a heterogeneity of target tissues and why it makes design sense to use LIF in the regulation of such a diverse and unrelated series of biological processes.