Research into late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) proteins has been ongoing for more than 20 years but, although there is a strong association of LEA proteins with abiotic stress tolerance particularly dehydration and cold stress, for most of that time, their function has been entirely obscure. After their initial discovery in plant seeds, three major groups (numbered 1, 2 and 3) of LEA proteins have been described in a range of different plants and plant tissues. Homologues of groups 1 and 3 proteins have also been found in bacteria and in certain invertebrates. In this review, we present some new data, survey the biochemistry, biophysics and bioinformatics of the LEA proteins and highlight several possible functions. These include roles as antioxidants and as membrane and protein stabilisers during water stress, either by direct interaction or by acting as molecular shields. Along with other hydrophilic proteins and compatible solutes, LEA proteins might also serve as "space fillers" to prevent cellular collapse at low water activities. This multifunctional capacity of the LEA proteins is probably attributable in part to their structural plasticity, as they are largely lacking in secondary structure in the fully hydrated state, but can become more folded during water stress and/or through association with membrane surfaces. The challenge now facing researchers investigating these enigmatic proteins is to make sense of the various in vitro defined functions in the living cell: Are the LEA proteins truly multi-talented, or are they still just misunderstood?