Polyploidy (or whole-genome duplication) is the condition of having more than two basic sets of chromosomes. Polyploidization is well tolerated in many species and can lead to specific biological functions. In mammals, programmed polyploidization takes place during development in certain tissues, such as the heart and placenta, and is considered a feature of differentiation. However, unscheduled polyploidization can cause genomic instability and has been observed in pathological conditions, such as cancer. Polyploidy of the liver parenchyma was first described more than 100 years ago. The liver is one of the few mammalian organs that display changes in polyploidy during homeostasis, regeneration and in response to damage. In the human liver, approximately 30% of hepatocytes are polyploid. The polyploidy of hepatocytes results from both nuclear polyploidy (an increase in the amount of DNA per nucleus) and cellular polyploidy (an increase in the number of nuclei per cell). In this Review, we discuss the regulation of polyploidy in liver development and pathophysiology. We also provide an overview of current knowledge about the mechanisms of hepatocyte polyploidization, its biological importance and the fate of polyploid hepatocytes during liver tumorigenesis.