Gangliosides, sialic acid-containing glycosphingolipids, are found in the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane of all vertebrate tissues and species. This report presents a brief introduction to the gangliosides and reviews the chemistry and topography of their biosynthesis. It also presents an overview of the present evidence supporting a physiological significance for the gangliosides in a variety of experimental systems. This includes consideration of their potential roles in development and cell adhesion. In addition, experimental examples in which gangliosides appear to influence signal transduction processes through their interactions with plasma membrane proteins are discussed.