A single entity, the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), phosphorylates and regulates in vivo hydroxymethylglutraryl-CoA reductase and acetyl-CoA carboxylase (key regulatory enzymes of sterol synthesis and fatty acid synthesis, respectively), and probably many additional targets. The kinase is activated by high AMP and low ATP via a complex mechanism, which involves allosteric regulation, promotion of phosphorylation by an upstream protein kinase (AMPK kinase), and inhibition of dephosphorylation. This protein-kinase cascade represents a sensitive system, which is activated by cellular stresses that deplete ATP, and thus acts like a cellular fuel gauge. Our central hypothesis is that, when it detects a ‘low-fuel’ situation, it protects the cell by switching off ATP-consuming pathways (e.g. fatty acid synthesis and sterol synthesis) and switching on alternative pathways for ATP generation (e.g. fatty acid oxidation). Native AMP-activated protein kinase is a heterotrimer consisting of a catalytic α subunit, and β and γ subunits, which are also essential for activity. All three subunits have homologues in budding yeast, which are components of the SNF1 protein-kinase complex. SNF1 is activated by glucose starvation (which in yeast leads to ATP depletion) and genetic studies have shown that it is involved in derepression of glucose-repressed genes. This raises the intriguing possibility that AMPK may regulate gene expression in mammals. AMPK/SNF1 homologues are found in higher plants, and this protein-kinase cascade appears to be an ancient system which evolved to protect cells against the effects of nutritional or environmental stress.