Different species of microorganisms including yeasts, filamentous fungi and bacteria have been used in the past 25 years for the controlled production of foreign proteins of scientific, pharmacological or industrial interest. A major obstacle for protein production processes and a limit to overall success has been the abundance of misfolded polypeptides, which fail to reach their native conformation. The presence of misfolded or folding-reluctant protein species causes considerable stress in host cells. The characterization of such adverse conditions and the elicited cell responses have permitted to better understand the physiology and molecular biology of conformational stress. Therefore, microbial cell factories for recombinant protein production are depicted here as a source of knowledge that has considerably helped to picture the extremely rich landscape of in vivo protein folding, and the main cellular players of this complex process are described for the most important cell factories used for biotechnological purposes. © 2008 Gasser et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.