One of the most promising applications of synthetic biology is the biosynthesis of new drugs from secondary metabolites. Here, we survey a wide range of strategies that control the activity of biosynthetic modules in the cell in space and time, and illustrate how these strategies can be used to design efficient cellular synthetic production systems. Re-engineered versions of secondary metabolite biosynthetic pathways identified from any genomic sequence can then be inserted into these systems in a plug-and-play fashion. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.