Release of fatty acids (FAs) from adipose tissue through lipolysis in fat cells is a key event in many processes. FAs are not only energy substrates but also signalling molecules and substrates for lipoprotein production by the liver. Fat cells consist of>95% triglycerides that are hydrolysed during lipolysis to glycerol and FAs. The major rate-limiting factor for lipolysis is hormone-sensitive lipase, but additional lipases such as adipose tissue triglyceride lipase may also play a role. The regulation of human fat cell lipolysis is, in many ways, species unique. Only catecholamines, insulin and natriuretic peptides have pronounced acute effects. Catecholamines influence lipolysis through four different adrenoceptor subtypes, in contrast to rodents where only one subtype (beta(3)) is of major importance. There are regional variations in adipocyte lipolysis leading to more release of FAs from the visceral than subcutaneous adipose tissue during hormone stimulation (insulin, catecholamines). Since, only visceral fat is linked to the liver (by the portal vein), alterations in visceral adipocyte tissue lipolysis have direct effects on the liver through portal FA release. The regional variations in lipolysis are further enhanced in obesity and polycystic ovarian syndrome, and are of importance for dyslipidaemia, hyperinsulinaemia and glucose intolerance in these conditions. There is a marked elevation of circulating FA levels among the obese, which may be due to enhanced production of tumour necrosis factor alpha in adipose tissue. This cytokine stimulates lipolysis through so-called MAP kinases. Pharmacological agents in clinical practice such as nicotinic acid and glitazones exert lipid-lowering and glucose-lowering effects, respectively, by decreasing FA output from the adipose tissue. This review covers the biochemistry, regulation and clinical aspects of human fat cell lipolysis.