SLs (sphingolipids) are composed of fatty acids and a polar head group derived from L-serine. SLs are essential components of all eukaryotic and many prokaryotic membranes but S1P (sphingosine 1-phosphate) is also a potent signalling molecule. Recent efforts have sought to inventory the large and chemically complex family of SLs (LIPID MAPS Consortium). Detailed understanding of SL metabolism may lead to therapeutic agents specifically directed at SL targets. We have studied the enzymes involved in SL biosynthesis; later stages are species-specific, but all core SLs are synthesized from the condensation of L-serine and a fatty acid thioester such as palmitoyl-CoA that is catalysed by SPT (serine palmitoyltransferase). SPT is a PLP (pyridoxal 5'-phosphate)-dependent enzyme that forms 3-KDS (3-ketodihydrosphingosine) through a decarboxylative Claisen-like condensation reaction. Eukaryotic SPTs are membrane-bound multi-subunit enzymes, whereas bacterial enzymes are cytoplasmic homodimers. We use bacterial SPTs (e.g. from Sphingomonas) to probe their structure and mechanism. Mutations in human SPT cause a neuropathy [HSAN1 (hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type 1)], a rare SL metabolic disease. How these mutations perturb SPT activity is subtle and bacterial SPT mimics of HSAN1 mutants affect the enzyme activity and structure of the SPT dimer. We have also explored SPT inhibition using various inhibitors (e.g. cycloserine). A number of new subunits and regulatory proteins that have a direct impact on the activity of eukaryotic SPTs have recently been discovered. Knowledge gained from bacterial SPTs sheds some light on the more complex mammalian systems. In the present paper, we review historical aspects of the area and highlight recent key developments.