The "sphingosin" backbone of sphingolipids was so named by J. L. W. Thudichum in 1884 for its enigmatic ("Sphinx-like") properties. Although still an elusive class of lipids, research on the involvement of sphingolipids in the signal transduction pathways that mediate cell growth, differentiation, multiple cell functions, and cell death has been rapidly expanding our understanding of these compounds. In addition to the newly discovered role of ceramide as an intracellular second messenger for tumor necrosis factor-alpha, IL-1beta, and other cytokines, sphingosine, sphingosine-1-phosphate, and other sphingolipid metabolites have recently been demonstrated to modulate cellular calcium homeostasis and cell proliferation. Perturbation of sphingolipid metabolism using synthetic and naturally occurring inhibitors of key enzymes of the biosynthetic pathways is aiding the characterization of these processes; for examples, inhibition of cerebroside synthase has indicated a role for ceramide in cellular stress responses including heat shock, and inhibition of ceramide synthase (by fumonisins) has revealed the role of disruption of sphingolipid metabolism in several animal diseases. Fumonisins are currently the focus of a FDA long-term tumor study. This review summarizes recent research on (i) the role of sphingolipids as important components of the diet, (ii) the role of sphingoid base metabolites and the ceramide cycle in expression of genes regulating cell growth, differentiation, and apoptosis, (iii) the use of cerebroside synthase inhibitors as tools for understanding the role of sphingolipids as mediators of cell cycle progression, renal disease, and stress responses, and (iv) the involvement of disrupted sphingolipid metabolism in animal disease and cellular deregulation associated with exposure to inhibitors of ceramide synthase and serine palmitoyltransferase, key enzymes in de novo sphingolipid biosynthesis. These findings illustrate how an understanding of the function of sphingolipids can help solve questions in toxicology and this is undoubtedly only the beginning of this story.