5'-adenosine monophosphate (AMP)-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is an evolutionarily conserved serine/threonine kinase that was originally identified as the key player in maintaining cellular energy homeostasis. Intensive research over the last decade has identified diverse molecular mechanisms and physiological conditions that regulate the AMPK activity. AMPK regulates diverse metabolic and physiological processes and is dysregulated in major chronic diseases, such as obesity, inflammation, diabetes and cancer. On the basis of its critical roles in physiology and pathology, AMPK is emerging as one of the most promising targets for both the prevention and treatment of these diseases. In this review, we discuss the current understanding of the molecular and physiological regulation of AMPK and its metabolic and physiological functions. In addition, we discuss the mechanisms underlying the versatile roles of AMPK in diabetes and cancer.