The iron storage protein, ferritin, plays a key role in iron metabolism. Its ability to sequester the element gives ferritin the dual functions of iron detoxification and iron reserve. The importance of these functions is emphasised by ferritin's ubiquitous distribution among living species. Ferritin's three-dimensional structure is highly conserved. All ferritins have 24 protein subunits arranged in 432 symmetry to give a hollow shell with an 80 A diameter cavity capable of storing up to 4500 Fe(III) atoms as an inorganic complex. Subunits are folded as 4-helix bundles each having a fifth short helix at roughly 60 degrees to the bundle axis. Structural features of ferritins from humans, horse, bullfrog and bacteria are described: all have essentially the same architecture in spite of large variations in primary structure (amino acid sequence identities can be as low as 14%) and the presence in some bacterial ferritins of haem groups. Ferritin molecules isolated from vertebrates are composed of two types of subunit (H and L), whereas those from plants and bacteria contain only H-type chains, where 'H-type' is associated with the presence of centres catalysing the oxidation of two Fe(II) atoms. The similarity between the dinuclear iron centres of ferritin H-chains and those of ribonucleotide reductase and other proteins suggests a possible wider evolutionary linkage. A great deal of research effort is now concentrated on two aspects of ferritin: its functional mechanisms and its regulation. These form the major part of the review. Steps in iron storage within ferritin molecules consist of Fe(II) oxidation, Fe(III) migration and the nucleation and growth of the iron core mineral. H-chains are important for Fe(II) oxidation and L-chains assist in core formation. Iron mobilisation, relevant to ferritin's role as iron reserve, is also discussed. Translational regulation of mammalian ferritin synthesis in response to iron and the apparent links between iron and citrate metabolism through a single molecule with dual function are described. The molecule, when binding a [4Fe-4S] cluster, is a functioning (cytoplasmic) aconitase. When cellular iron is low, loss of the [4Fe-4S] cluster allows the molecule to bind to the 5'-untranslated region (5'-UTR) of the ferritin m-RNA and thus to repress translation. In this form it is known as the iron regulatory protein (IRP) and the stem-loop RNA structure to which it binds is the iron regulatory element (IRE). IREs are found in the 3'-UTR of the transferrin receptor and in the 5'-UTR of erythroid aminolaevulinic acid synthase, enabling tight co-ordination between cellular iron uptake and the synthesis of ferritin and haem. Degradation of ferritin could potentially lead to an increase in toxicity due to uncontrolled release of iron. Degradation within membrane-encapsulated "secondary lysosomes' may avoid this problem and this seems to be the origin of another form of storage iron known as haemosiderin. However, in certain pathological states, massive deposits of "haemosiderin' are found which do not arise directly from ferritin breakdown. Understanding the numerous inter-relationships between the various intracellular iron complexes presents a major challenge.