Inorganic polyphosphate (poly P) is a chain of tens or many hundreds of phosphate (Pi) residues linked by high-energy phosphoanhydride bonds. Despite inorganic polyphosphate's ubiquity--found in every cell in nature and likely conserved from prebiotic times--this polymer has been given scant attention. Among the reasons for this neglect of poly P have been the lack of sensitive, definitive, and facile analytical methods to assess its concentration in biological sources and the consequent lack of demonstrably important physiological functions. This review focuses on recent advances made possible by the introduction of novel, enzymatically based assays. The isolation and ready availability of Escherichia coli polyphosphate kinase (PPK) that can convert poly P and ADP to ATP and of a yeast exopolyphosphatase that can hydrolyze poly P to Pi, provide highly specific, sensitive, and facile assays adaptable to a high-throughput format. Beyond the reagents afforded by the use of these enzymes, their genes, when identified, mutated, and overexpressed, have offered insights into the physiological functions of poly P. Most notably, studies in E. coli reveal large accumulations of poly P in cellular responses to deficiencies in an amino acid, Pi, or nitrogen or to the stresses of a nutrient downshift or high salt. The ppk mutant, lacking PPK and thus severely deficient in poly P, also fails to express RpoS (a sigma factor for RNA polymerase), the regulatory protein that governs > or = 50 genes responsible for stationary-phase adaptations to resist starvation, heat and oxidant stresses, UV irradiation, etc. Most dramatically, ppk mutants die after only a few days in stationary phase. The high degree of homology of the PPK sequence in many bacteria, including some of the major pathogenic species (e.g. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Neisseria meningitidis, Helicobacter pylori, Vibrio cholerae, Salmonella typhimurium, Shigella flexneri, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Bordetella pertussis, and Yersinia pestis), has prompted the knockout of their ppk gene to determine the dependence of virulence on poly P and the potential of PPK as a target for antimicrobial drugs. In yeast and mammalian cells, exo- and endopolyphosphatases have been identified and isolated, but little is known about the synthesis of poly P or its physiologic functions. Whether microbe or human, all species depend on adaptations in the stationary phase, which is truly a dynamic phase of life. Most research is focused on the early and reproductive phases of organisms, which are rather brief intervals of rapid growth. More attention needs to be given to the extensive period of maturity. Survival of microbial species depends on being able to manage in the stationary phase. In view of the universality and complexity of basic biochemical mechanisms, it would be surprising if some of the variety of poly P functions observed in microorganisms did not apply to aspects of human growth and development, to aging, and to the aberrations of disease. Of theoretical interest regarding poly P is its antiquity in prebiotic evolution, which along with its high energy and phosphate content, make it a plausible precursor to RNA, DNA, and proteins. Practical interest in poly P includes many industrial applications, among which is the microbial removal of Pi in aquatic environments.