Psychrophilic and psychrotrophic microorganisms are important in global ecology as a large proportion of our planet is cold (below 5 <latex>$^\circ$</latex>C); they are responsible for the spoilage of chilled food and they also have potential uses in low-temperature biotechnological processes. Psychrophiles and psychrotrophs are both capable of growing at or close to zero, but the optimum and upper temperature limits for growth are lower for psychrophiles compared with psychrotrophs. Psychrophiles are more often isolated from permanently cold habitats, whereas psychrotrophs tend to dominate those environments that undergo thermal fluctuations. The molecular basis of psychrophily is reviewed in terms of biochemical mechanisms. The lower growth temperature limit is fixed by the freezing properties of dilute aqueous solutions inside and outside the cell. In contrast, the ability of psychrophiles and psychrotrophs to grow at low, but not moderate, temperatures depends on adaptive changes in cellular proteins and lipids. Changes in proteins are genotypic, and are related to the properties of enzymes and translation systems, whereas changes in lipids are genotypic or phenotypic and are important in regulating membrane fluidity and permeability. The ability to adapt their solute uptake systems through membrane lipid modulation may distinguish psychrophiles from psychrotrophs. The upper growth temperature limit can result from the inactivation of a single enzyme type or system, including protein synthesis or energy generation.