Phospholipase A(2) (PLA(2)) catalyses the hydrolysis of the sn-2 position of glycerophospholipids to yield fatty acids and lysophospholipids. So far, more than 30 enzymes that possess PLA(2) or related activity have been identified in mammals. About one third of these enzymes belong to the secreted PLA(2) (sPLA(2)) family, which comprises low molecular weight, Ca(2+) requiring, secreted enzymes with a His/Asp catalytic dyad. Individual sPLA(2)s display distinct localizations and enzymatic properties, suggesting their specialized biological roles. However, in contrast to intracellular PLA(2)s, whose roles in signal transduction and membrane homoeostasis have been well documented, the biological roles of sPLA(2)s in vivo have remained obscure until recently. Over the past decade, information fuelled by studies employing knockout and transgenic mice as well as specific inhibitors, in combination with lipidomics, has clarified when and where the different sPLA(2) isoforms are expressed, which isoforms are involved in what types of pathophysiology, and how they exhibit their specific functions. In this review, we highlight recent advances in PLA(2) research, focusing mainly on the physiological functions of sPLA(2)s and their modes of action on 'extracellular' phospholipid targets versus lipid mediator production.