Autotaxin (ATX) is a secreted phosphodiesterase that produces the lipid mediator lysophosphatidic acid (LPA). LPA acts through specific guanine-nucleotide-binding protein (G protein)-coupled receptors to stimulate migration, proliferation, survival and other functions in many cell types. ATX is important in vivo for processes as diverse as vasculogenesis, lymphocyte trafficking and tumour progression. However, the inner workings of ATX have long been elusive, in terms of both its substrate specificity and how localized LPA signalling is achieved. Structural studies have shown how ATX recognizes its substrates and may interact with the cell surface to promote specificity in LPA signalling.