Lectins, or carbohydrate binding proteins, recognize specific oligosaccharide structures on glycoproteins and glycolipids. Several families of animal lectins have been identified; for some of these lectins, functions such as leukocyte adhesion and microbial opsonization have been described. The galectins are a family of lectins found in species ranging from sponges and nematodes to humans. Members of the galectin family have been proposed to mediate cell adhesion, to regulate cell growth, and to trigger or inhibit apoptosis. The expression pattern of different galectins changes during development, and this pattern is also altered at sites of inflammation and in breast, colon, prostate, and thyroid carcinomas. In addition, the level of expression of some galectins by tumor cells has been shown to be correlated with metastatic potential. The mechanisms by which galectins exert these diverse effects remain largely unknown. Some glycoprotein counterreceptors recognized by certain galectins have been identified; this is an important first step in understanding the cell-type specific effects of different galectins. This review discusses the way in which the modulation of galectin activity may affect strategies for treatment of a variety of human diseases, including autoimmunity and cancer.