1. Curcumin is the active ingredient of the dietary spice turmeric and has been consumed for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Modern science has shown that curcumin modulates various signalling molecules, including inflammatory molecules, transcription factors, enzymes, protein kinases, protein reductases, carrier proteins, cell survival proteins, drug resistance proteins, adhesion molecules, growth factors, receptors, cell cycle regulatory proteins, chemokines, DNA, RNA and metal ions. 2. Because of this polyphenol's potential to modulate multiple signalling molecules, it has been reported to possess pleiotropic activities. First demonstrated to have antibacterial activity in 1949, curcumin has since been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, pro-apoptotic, chemopreventive, chemotherapeutic, antiproliferative, wound healing, antinociceptive, antiparasitic and antimalarial properties as well. Animal studies have suggested that curcumin may be active against a wide range of human diseases, including diabetes, obesity, neurological and psychiatric disorders and cancer, as well as chronic illnesses affecting the eyes, lungs, liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems. 3. Although many clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of curcumin against human ailments have already been completed, others are still ongoing. Moreover, curcumin is used as a supplement in several countries, including India, Japan, the US, Thailand, China, Korea, Turkey, South Africa, Nepal and Pakistan. Although inexpensive, apparently well tolerated and potentially active, curcumin has not been approved for the treatment of any human disease. 4. In the present article, we discuss the discovery and key biological activities of curcumin, with a particular emphasis on its activities at the molecular and cellular levels, as well as in animals and humans. © 2011 The Authors. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.