The development of non-infectious subunit vaccines greatly increases the safety of prophylactic immunization, but also reinforces the need for a new generation of immunostimulatory adjuvants. Because adverse effects are a paramount concern in prophylactic immunization, few new adjuvants have received approval for use anywhere in the developed world. The vaccine adjuvant monophosphoryl lipid A is a detoxified form of the endotoxin lipopolysaccharide, and is among the first of a new generation of Toll-like receptor agonists likely to be used as vaccine adjuvants on a mass scale in human populations. Much remains to be learned about this compound's mechanism of action, but recent developments have made clear that it is unlikely to be simply a weak version of lipopolysaccharide. Instead, monophosphoryl lipid A's structure seems to have fortuitously retained several functions needed for stimulation of adaptive immune responses, while shedding those associated with pro-inflammatory side effects.