The worldwide shortage of donor livers to transplant end stage liver disease patients has prompted the search for alternative cell therapies for intractable liver diseases, such as acute liver failure, cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Under normal circumstances the liver undergoes a low rate of hepatocyte 'wear and tear' renewal, but can mount a brisk regenerative response to the acute loss of two-thirds or more of the parenchymal mass. A body of evidence favours placement of a stem cell niche in the periportal regions, although the identity of such stem cells in rodents and man is far from clear. In animal models of liver disease, adopting strategies to provide a selective advantage for transplanted hepatocytes has proved highly effective in repopulating recipient livers, but the poor success of today's hepatocyte transplants can be attributed to the lack of a clinically applicable procedure to force a similar repopulation of the human liver. The activation of bipotential hepatic progenitor cells (HPCs) is clearly vital for survival in many cases of acute liver failure, and the signals that promote such reactions are being elucidated. Bone marrow cells (BMCs) make, at best, a trivial contribution to hepatocyte replacement after damage, but other BMCs contribute to the hepatic collagen-producing cell population, resulting in fibrotic disease; paradoxically, BMC transplantation may help alleviate established fibrotic disease. HCC may have its origins in either hepatocytes or HPCs, and HCCs, like other solid tumours appear to be sustained by a minority population of cancer stem cells.