The cell death of hepatocytes is a characteristic feature of liver damage triggered by viral infection, drug abuse, fat overload or autoimmunity. Apoptosis is currently the best-understood form of cell death; however, the precise mechanisms leading to apoptosis in liver disease are largely unknown. Several cellular processes including alterations in cell hydration and ion homeostasis, osmotic and oxidative stress, lysosomal permeabilization as well as alternate forms of cell death may contribute to liver damage. The intriguing complexity and relevance of these processes for liver failure were addressed at the Third International Conference of the Collaborative Research Center ‘Experimental Hepatology’ (SFB-575),which was held in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 13–14 October 2006. The aim of this symposium was to bring together leading researchers studying cell death pathways in the liver and other systems and to share ideas and recent research findings. This report covers some of the salient and stimulating contributions of the meeting and gives an updated survey of the advances in this burgeoning field of translational medicine.