Higher plants as sessile organisms react very flexible to environmental changes and stresses and use metabolites like glucose, sucrose and nitrate not only as nutrients but also as signals as part of their life strategies. The role of metabolites as signal molecules has attracted considerable interest during recent years. Data reviewed here for developing plant seeds suggest a trigger function of especially sugars also in development in that metabolic regulatory control can override developmental regulation, i.e., the developmental programme only continues normally if a certain metabolic state is sensed at a given time point in a given cell or tissue. Several experimental strategies have provided mainly correlative evidence that certain sugar levels and/or the resulting changes in osmotic values are necessary within defined tissues or cells to maintain a distinct stage of differentiation or to proceed with the developmental programme. In young legume seeds, but certainly also in other tissues, a high hexose (probably mainly glucose) level seems to maintain the capacity of cells to divide whereas - later in seed development - a certain sucrose level is necessary to induce storage-associated cell differentiation. A major determinant of embryo hexose levels in young legume seeds is an apoplastic invertase preferentially expressed in the inner cell layers of the seed coat. The enzyme cleaves the incoming photoassimilate sucrose into glucose and fructose. During development the tissue harbouring the invertase is degraded in a very specific spatial and temporal pattern as part of the developmental programme and is thus creating steep glucose gradients within the cotyledons. These gradients can be measured at nearly cellular resolution and were found to be correlated positively with cell division rate and negatively with cell differentiation and storage activities. A hexose and a sucrose transporter accumulating only in the epidermal cell layer of the cotyledons seem to be essential in creating and maintaining these gradients. To gain further insights into the role of metabolites, especially sugars, as triggers of developmental processes we foremost have to identify receptor molecules already characterised in yeast, and to describe and understand the signal transduction networks involved.