The human collectin, mannose‐binding lectin (MBL), is an important protein of the humoral innate immune system. With multiple carbohydrate‐recognition domains, it is able to bind to sugar groups displayed on the surfaces of a wide range of microorganisms and thereby provide first‐line defence. Importantly, it also activates the complement system through a distinctive third pathway, independent of both antibody and the C1 complex. Three single point mutations in exon 1 of the expressed human MBL‐2 gene appear to impair the generation of functional oligomers. Such deficiencies of functional protein are common in certain populations, e.g. in sub‐Saharan Africa, but virtually absent in others, e.g. indigenous Australians. MBL disease association studies have been a fruitful area of research and implicate a role for MBL in infective, inflammatory and autoimmune disease processes. Overall, there appears to be a genetic balance in which individuals generally benefit from high levels of the protein. However, in certain situations, reduced levels of circulating MBL may be beneficial to the host and this may explain the persistence of the deleterious gene polymorphisms in many population groups.