Alginate lyases, characterized as either mannuronate (EC 22.214.171.124) or guluronate lyases (EC 126.96.36.199), catalyze the degradation of alginate, a complex copolymer of alpha-L-guluronate and its C5 epimer beta-D-mannuronate. Lyases have been isolated from a wide range of organisms, including algae, marine invertebrates, and marine and terrestrial microorganisms. This review catalogs the major characteristics of these lyases, the methods for analyzing these enzymes, as well as their biological roles. Analysis of primary sequence data identifies some markedly conserved motifs that should help elucidate functional domains. Information about the three-dimensional structure of a mannuronate lyase from Sphingomonas sp., combined with various mutagenesis studies, has identified residues that are important for catalytic activity in several lyases. Characterization of alginate lyases will enhance and expand the use of these enzymes to engineer novel alginate polymers for applications in various industrial, agricultural, and medical fields. In this review, we explore both past and present applications of this important enzyme and discuss its future prospects.