Bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPS) are unique and complex glycolipids that provide characteristic components of the outer membranes of Gram-negative bacteria. In LPS of the Enterobacteriaceae, the core oligosaccharide links a highly conserved lipid A to the antigenic O-polysaccharide. Structural diversity in the core oligosaccharide is limited by the constraints imposed by its essential role in outer membrane stability and provides a contrast to the hypervariable O-antigen. The genetics of core oligosaccharide biosynthesis in Salmonella and Escherichia coli K-12 have served as prototypes for studies on the LPS and lipo-oligosaccharides from a growing range of bacteria. However, despite the wealth of knowledge, there remains a number of unanswered questions, and direct experimental data are not yet available to define the precise mechanism of action of many gene products. Here we present a comparative analysis of the recently completed sequences of the major core oligosaccharide biosynthesis gene clusters from the five known core types in E. coli and the Ra core type of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium and discuss advances in the understanding of the related biosynthetic pathways. Differences in these clusters reflect important structural variations in the outer core oligosaccharides and provide a basis for ascribing functions to the genes in these model clusters, whereas highly conserved regions within these clusters suggest a critical and unalterable function for the inner region of the core.