Looking back at two decades of research on SPIRE actin nucleator proteins, the first decade was clearly dominated by the discovery of SPIRE proteins as founding members of the novel WH2-domain-based actin nucleators, which initiate actin filament assembly through multiple WH2 actin-binding domains. Through complex formation with formins and class 5 myosins, SPIRE proteins coordinate actin filament assembly and myosin motor-dependent force generation. The discovery of SPIRE-regulated cytoplasmic actin filament meshworks in oocytes initiated the next phase of SPIRE research, which has found that SPIRE proteins are integrated in a diverse range of cell biological processes. In addition to regulating vesicle-based actin filament meshworks, SPIRE proteins function in the organisation of actin structures driving the inward movement of pronuclei of the mouse zygote. Localisation at cortical ring structures and the results of knockdown experiments indicate that SPIRE proteins function in the formation of meiotic cleavage sites in mammalian oocytes and the externalisation of von Willebrand factor from endothelial cells. Alternative splicing targets mammalian SPIRE1 towards mitochondria, where it has a role in fission. In this Review, we summarise the past two decades of SPIRE research by addressing the biochemical and cell biological functions of SPIRE proteins in mammalian reproduction, skin pigmentation and wound healing, as well as in mitochondrial dynamics and host–pathogen interactions.