Advances in our understanding of the mechanisms that bring about the resolution of acute inflammation have uncovered a new genus of pro-resolving lipid mediators that include the lipoxin, resolvin, protectin and maresin families, collectively called specialized pro-resolving mediators. Synthetic versions of these mediators have potent bioactions when administered in vivo. In animal experiments, the mediators evoke anti-inflammatory and novel pro-resolving mechanisms, and enhance microbial clearance. Although they have been identified in inflammation resolution, specialized pro-resolving mediators are conserved structures that also function in host defence, pain, organ protection and tissue remodelling. This Review covers the mechanisms of specialized pro-resolving mediators and omega-3 essential fatty acid pathways that could help us to understand their physiological functions.