Recent advances in the cell, developmental, and molecular biology of alkaloid biosynthesis have heightened our appreciation for the complexity and importance of plant secondary pathways. Several biosynthetic genes involved in the formation of tropane, benzylisoquinoline, and terpenoid indole alkaloids have now been isolated. The early events of signal perception, the pathways of signal transduction, and the function of gene promoters have been studied in relation to the regulation of alkaloid metabolism. Enzymes involved in alkaloid biosynthesis are associated with diverse subcellular compartments including the cytosol, vacuole, tonoplast membrane, endoplasmic reticulum, chloroplast stroma, thylakoid membranes, and perhaps unique "biosynthetic" or transport vesicles. Localization studies have shown that sequential alkaloid biosynthetic enzymes can also occur in distinct cell types, suggesting the intercellular transport of pathway intermediates. Isolated genes have also been used to genetically alter the accumulation of specific alkaloids and other plant secondary metabolites. Metabolic modifications include increased indole alkaloid levels, altered tropane alkaloid accumulation, elevated serotonin synthesis, reduced indole glucosinolate production, redirected shikimate metabolism, and increased cell wall-bound tyramine formation. This review discusses the biochemistry, cell biology, molecular regulation, and metabolic engineering of alkaloid biosynthesis in plants.