As in nearly every discipline of plant biology, new insights are constantly changing our understanding of plant immunity. It is now clear that plant immunity is controlled by two layers of inducible responses: basal responses triggered by conserved microbial features and specific responses triggered by gene-for-gene recognition of pathogen effector proteins by host resistance (R) proteins. The nucleotide-binding domain leucine-rich repeat (NB-LRR) class of R proteins plays a major role in the combat against a wide range of plant pathogens. The variation that has been generated and is maintained within these conserved proteins has diversified their specificity, subcellular localisations, activation and recognition mechanisms, allowing them to specifically adapt to different plant-pathogen interaction systems. This review addresses recent advances in the molecular role of NB-LRR proteins in pathogen recognition and activation of plant defence responses.