Extreme loss of skeletal muscle mass (atrophy) occurs in human muscles that are not used. In striking contrast, skeletal muscles do not rapidly waste away in hibernating mammals such as bears, or aestivating frogs, subjected to many months of inactivity and starvation. What factors regulate skeletal muscle mass and what mechanisms protect against muscle atrophy in some species? Severe atrophy also occurs with ageing and there is much clinical interest in reducing such loss of muscle mass and strength (sarcopenia). In the meat industry, a key aim is optimizing the control of skeletal muscle growth and meat quality. The impaired response of muscle to insulin resulting in diabetes, that is a consequence of the metabolic impact of increasing obesity and fat deposition in humans, is also of increasing clinical concern. Intensive research in these fields, combined with mouse models, is reviewed with respect to the molecular control of muscle growth (myogenesis) and atrophy/hypertrophy and fat deposition (adipogenesis) in skeletal muscle, with a focus on IGF-1/insulin signaling. BioEssays 28: 994–1009, 2006. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.