Nucleotide excision repair (NER) is the most versatile mechanism of DNA repair, recognizing and dealing with a variety of helix-distorting lesions, such as the UV-induced photoproducts cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers (CPDs) and pyrimidine 6-4 pyrimidone photoproducts (6-4 PPs). In this review, we describe the main protein players and the different sequential steps of the eukaryotic NER mechanism in human cells, from lesion recognition to damage removal and DNA synthesis. Studies on the dynamics of protein access to the damaged site, and the kinetics of lesion removal contribute to the knowledge of how the cells respond to genetic insult. DNA lesions as well as NER factors themselves are also implicated in changes in cell metabolism, influencing cell cycle progression or arrest, apoptosis and genetic instability. These changes are related to increased mutagenesis and carcinogenesis. Finally, the recent collection of genomic data allows one to recognize the high conservation and the evolution of eukaryotic NER. The distribution of NER orthologues in different organisms, from archaea to the metazoa, displays challenging observations. Some of NER proteins are widespread in nature, probably representing ancient DNA repair proteins, which are candidates to participate in a primitive NER mechanism.