The basic principles of structure, stereochemistry, and nomenclature of carotenoids are described and the relationships between structure and the chemical and physical properties on which all the varied biological functions and actions of carotenoids depend are discussed. The conjugated polyene chromophore determines not only the light absorption properties, and hence color, but also the photochemical properties of the molecule and consequent light-harvesting and photoprotective action. The polyene chain is also the feature mainly responsible for the chemical reactivity of carotenoids toward oxidizing agents and free radicals, and hence for any antioxidant role. In vivo, carotenoids are found in precise locations and orientations in subcellular structures, and their chemical and physical properties are strongly influenced by other molecules in their vicinity, especially proteins and membrane lipids. In turn, the carotenoids influence the properties of these subcellular structures. Structural features such as size, shape, and polarity are essential determinants of the ability of a carotenoid to fit correctly into its molecular environment to allow it to function. A role for carotenoids in modifying structure, properties, and stability of cell membranes, and thus affecting molecular processes associated with these membranes, may be an important aspect of their possible beneficial effects on human health.--Britton, G. Structure and properties of carotenoids in relation to function.