Streptomycetes are Gram-positive bacteria with a unique capacity for the production of a multitude of varied and complex secondary metabolites. They also have a complex life cycle including differentiation into at least three distinct cell types. Whilst much attention has been paid to the pathways and regulation of secondary metabolism, less has been paid to the pathways and the regulation of primary metabolism, which supplies the precursors. With the imminent completion of the total genome sequence of Streptomyces coelicolor A3(2), we need to understand the pathways of primary metabolism if we are to understand the role of newly discovered genes. This review is written as a contribution to supplying these wants. Streptomycetes inhabit soil, which, because of the high numbers of microbial competitors, is an oligotrophic environment. Soil nutrient levels reflect the fact that plant-derived material is the main nutrient input; i.e. it is carbon-rich and nitrogen- and phosphate-poor. Control of streptomycete primary metabolism reflects the nutrient availability. The variety and multiplicity of carbohydrate catabolic pathways reflects the variety and multiplicity of carbohydrates in the soil. This multiplicity of pathways has led to investment by streptomycetes in pathway-specific and global regulatory networks such as glucose repression. The mechanism of glucose repression is clearly different from that in other bacteria. Streptomycetes feed by secreting complexes of extracellular enzymes that break down plant cell walls to release nutrients. The induction of these enzyme complexes is often coordinated by inducers that bear no structural relation to the substrate or product of any particular enzyme in the complex; e.g. a product of xylan breakdown may induce cellulase production. Control of amino acid catabolism reflects the relative absence of nitrogen catabolites in soil. The cognate amino acid induces about half of the catabolic pathways and half are constitutive. There are reduced instances of global carbon and nitrogen catabolite control of amino acid catabolism, which again presumably reflects the relative rarity of the catabolites. There are few examples of feedback repression of amino acid biosynthesis. Again this is taken as a reflection of the oligotrophic nature of the streptomycete ecological niche. As amino acids are not present in the environment, streptomycetes have rarely invested in feedback repression. Exceptions to this generalization are the arginine and branched-chain amino acid pathways and some parts of the aromatic amino acid pathways which have regulatory systems similar to Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis and other copiotrophic bacteria.