Under physiological conditions, phosphatidic acid (PA) is an anionic phospholipid with moderate biological reactivity. Some of its biological effects can be attributed to lyso-PA and diacylglycerol generated by the action of cellular hydrolases. However, it is clear that the parent compound exhibits biological activities of its own. Early studies implicated PA in the transport of Ca++ across plasma membranes as well as in the mobilization of intracellular stored calcium. Both responses may be induced as a consequence of other cellular processes activated by PA, as opposed to being directly mediated by the lipid. PA may be involved in the activation of certain functions confined to specialized groupings of cells, such as the neutrophil superoxide-generating enzyme or actin polymerization. Recent studies implicate PA as an activator of intracellular protein kinases, and a PA-dependent superfamily of kinases involved in cellular signalling has been hypothesized. Deployed on the outer surface of the plasma membrane, PA potentially provides a method of communication between cells in direct contact. This review will explore the known functions of PA as an intracellular mediator and extracellular messenger of biological activities and address ways in which these functions are potentially regulated by cellular enzymes which hydrolyse the phospholipid.