Alkaloids represent a large and diverse group of compounds that are related by the occurrence of a nitrogen atom within a heterocyclic backbone. Unlike other types of secondary metabolites, the various structural categories of alkaloids are unrelated in terms of biosynthesis and evolution. Although the biology of each group is unique, common patterns have become apparent. Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), which produces several benzylisoquinoline alkaloids, and Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), which accumulates an array of monoterpenoid indole alkaloids, have emerged as the premier organisms used to study plant alkaloid metabolism. The status of these species as model systems results from decades of research on the chemistry, enzymology and molecular biology responsible for the biosynthesis of valuable pharmaceutical alkaloids. Opium poppy remains the only commercial source for morphine, codeine and semi-synthetic analgesics, such as oxycodone, derived from thebaine. Catharanthus roseus is the only source for the anti-cancer drugs vinblastine and vincristine. Impressive collections of cDNAs encoding biosynthetic enzymes and regulatory proteins involved in the formation of benzylisoquinoline and monoterpenoid indole alkaloids are now available, and the rate of gene discovery has accelerated with the application of genomics. Such tools have allowed the establishment of models that describe the complex cell biology of alkaloid metabolism in these important medicinal plants. A suite of biotechnological resources, including genetic transformation protocols, has allowed the application of metabolic engineering to modify the alkaloid content of these and related species. An overview of recent progress on benzylisoquinoline and monoterpenoid indole alkaloid biosynthesis in opium poppy and C. roseus is presented.