The sensitivity of conventional nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques is fundamentally limited by the ordinarily low spin polarization achievable in even the strongest NMR magnets. However, by transferring angular momentum from laser light to electronic and nuclear spins, optical pumping methods can increase the nuclear spin polarization of noble gases by several orders of magnitude, thereby greatly enhancing their NMR sensitivity. This review describes the principles and magnetic resonance applications of laser-polarized noble gases. The enormous sensitivity enhancement afforded by optical pumping can be exploited to permit a variety of novel NMR experiments across numerous disciplines. Many such experiments are reviewed, including the void-space imaging of organisms and materials, NMR and MRI of living tissues, probing structure and dynamics of molecules in solution and on surfaces, NMR sensitivity enhancement via polarization transfer, and low-field NMR and MRI. (c) 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).