As aspects of basic science come to play an increasingly prominent role in clinical medicine, heme oxygenase-1 is one of several molecules emerging as a central player in diseases of the lung and intensive care unit. Although the apparent raison d'être of this enzyme is to dispose of heme, its activity results in cytoprotection against oxidative injury and cellular stresses. As the lung interfaces directly with an oxidizing environment, it is expected that heme oxygenase-1 would be involved in many aspects of lung health and disease. The protective effects of heme oxygenase-1 and products of its enzymatic activity, including carbon monoxide, biliverdin and bilirubin, and ferritin, have opened the door to potential therapeutic and disease-monitoring possibilities that one day may be applicable to pulmonary medicine. This article introduces readers to the history of heme oxygenase research, the role of this enzyme in the lung, and related new developments to look forward to in the fields of pulmonary and critical care medicine.