Nuclear receptors comprise a large family of proteins that shares a common structure and mechanism of action. Members of this family, first cloned 20 years ago, are regulated by small lipophilic signaling molecules such as steroid hormones, retinoids and thyroid hormone. More recently, the characterization of proteins that resemble nuclear receptors (referred to as orphan receptors) has resulted in the determination of novel signaling pathways. However, many orphan-receptor ligands remain unidentified, and recent structural studies of the binding domains for orphan-receptor ligands suggest that not all of these receptors use ligand binding in a classical way. Notably, it is now evident that some orphan receptors lack the capacity for ligand binding, which suggests that they are regulated by alternative, ligand-independent mechanisms.