Lowe syndrome is an X-linked disease that is characterized by congenital cataracts, central hypotonia, intellectual disability and renal Fanconi syndrome. The disease is caused by mutations in OCRL, which encodes an inositol polyphosphate 5-phosphatase (OCRL) that acts on phosphoinositides — quantitatively minor constituents of cell membranes that are nonetheless pivotal regulators of intracellular trafficking. In this Review we summarize the considerable progress made over the past decade in understanding the cellular roles of OCRL in regulating phosphoinositide balance along the endolysosomal pathway, a fundamental system for the reabsorption of proteins and solutes by proximal tubular cells. We discuss how studies of OCRL have led to important discoveries about the basic mechanisms of membrane trafficking and describe the key features and limitations of the currently available animal models of Lowe syndrome. Mutations in OCRL can also give rise to a milder pathology, Dent disease 2, which is characterized by renal Fanconi syndrome in the absence of extrarenal pathologies. Understanding how mutations in OCRL give rise to two clinical entities with differing extrarenal manifestations represents an opportunity to identify molecular pathways that could be targeted to develop treatments for these conditions.