Four case studies are used to examine the relationships of water, ice nucleators and desiccation in the cold survival of invertebrates and the viability of frozen plant material: the freeze intolerant Antarctic springtail Cryptopygus antarcticus (Willem) (Collembola, Isotomidae), the freeze tolerant larvae of the fly Heleomyza borealis Boh. (Diptera: Heleomyzidae), the freeze intolerant Arctic springtail Onychiurus arcticus (Tullberg) (Collembola, Onychiuridae) and meristems of the currant Ribes ciliatum Humb. & Bonpl.(Grossulariaceae) from Mexico. Prevention of ice nucleation, lowering the water content by removal of osmotically active (freezable) water are critical features of the different cold survival strategies of the three species of invertebrates. In C. antarcticus, which desiccates rapidly by losing water via the cuticle to the atmosphere, the number of ice nucleators (and their activity) increases with lowered ambient temperature. During prolonged cold exposure ice nucleators are masked, but re-activated rapidly by water uptake in this species. Larval H. borealis do not readily desiccate and conserve their body water, 20-25% of it being bound (osmotically inactive). Experiments showed that a high proportion (c. 80%) of slowly cooled larvae survived exposure to -60degreesC. By comparison O. arcticus is able to sustain up to 40% loss of its body water and desiccation lowers its supercooling point to promote over winter survival. Dehydration leading to partial vitrification of currant (R. ciliatum) meristems improves their viability after cryopreservation in liquid nitrogen. From this comparison of four biological systems, it is concluded that the role of water and its activity at sub-zero temperatures are fundamental to the survival of freezing conditions by all the species studied. Although similar features exist in the four systems, no common basic mechanism was found.