Interleukin-21 is a cytokine with broad pleiotropic actions that affect the differentiation and function of lymphoid and myeloid cells. Since its discovery in 2000, a tremendous amount has been learned about its biological actions and the molecular mechanisms controlling IL-21-mediated cellular responses. IL-21 regulates both innate and adaptive immune responses, and it not only has key roles in antitumour and antiviral responses but also exerts major effects on inflammatory responses that promote the development of autoimmune diseases and inflammatory disorders. Numerous studies have shown that enhancing or inhibiting the action of IL-21 has therapeutic effects in animal models of a wide range of diseases, and various clinical trials are underway. The current challenge is to understand how to specifically modulate the actions of IL-21 in the context of each specific immune response or pathological situation. In this Review, we provide an overview of the basic biology of IL-21 and discuss how this information has been - and can be - exploited therapeutically.