New and exciting insights into the importance of the innate immune system are revolutionizing our understanding of immune defense against infections, pathogenesis, and the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases. The innate immune system uses multiple families of germline-encoded pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) to detect infection and trigger a variety of antimicrobial defense mechanisms. PRRs are evolutionarily highly conserved and serve to detect infection by recognizing pathogen-associated molecular patterns that are unique to microorganisms and essential for their survival. Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are transmembrane signalling receptors that activate gene expression programs that result in the production of proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines, type I interferons and antimicrobial factors. Furthermore, TLR activation facilitates and guides activation of adaptive immune responses through the activation of dendritic cells. TLRs are localized on the cell surface and in endosomal/lysosomal compartments, where they detect bacterial and viral infections. In contrast, nucleotide-binding oligomerization domain proteins and RNA helicases are located in the cell cytoplasm, where they serve as intracellular PRRs to detect cytoplasmic infections, particularly viruses. Due to their ability to enhance innate immune responses, novel strategies to use ligands, synthetic agonists or antagonists of PRRs (also known as 'innate immunologicals') can be used as stand-alone agents to provide immediate protection or treatment against bacterial, viral or parasitic infections. Furthermore, the newly appreciated importance of innate immunity in initiating and shaping adaptive immune responses is contributing to our understanding of vaccine adjuvants and promises to lead to improved next-generation vaccines.