The AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) system is a key player in regulating energy balance at both the cellular and whole-body levels, placing it at centre stage in studies of obesity, diabetes and the metabolic syndrome. It is switched on in response to metabolic stresses such as muscle contraction or hypoxia, and modulated by hormones and cytokines affecting whole-body energy balance such as leptin, adiponectin, resistin, ghrelin and cannabinoids. Once activated, it switches on catabolic pathways that generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), while switching off ATP-consuming anabolic processes. AMPK exists as heterotrimeric complexes comprising a catalytic alpha-subunit and regulatory beta- and gamma-subunits. Binding of AMP to the gamma-subunit, which is antagonized by high ATP, causes activation of the kinase by promoting phosphorylation at threonine (Thr-172) on the alpha-subunit by the upstream kinase LKB1, allowing the system to act as a sensor of cellular energy status. In certain cells, AMPK is activated in response to elevation of cytosolic Ca2+ via phosphorylation of Thr-172 by calmodulin-dependent kinase kinase-beta (CaMKKbeta). Activation of AMPK, either in response to exercise or to pharmacological agents, has considerable potential to reverse the metabolic abnormalities associated with type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome. Two existing classes of antidiabetic drugs, that is, biguanides (for example, metformin) and the thiazolidinediones (for example, rosiglitazone), both act (at least in part) by activation of AMPK. Novel drugs activating AMPK may also have potential for the treatment of obesity.