Phosphate (Pi) plays a central role as reactant and effector molecule in plant cell metabolism. However, Pi is the least accessible macronutrient in many ecosystems and its low availability often limits plant growth. Plants have evolved an array of molecular and morphological adaptations to cope with Pi limitation, which include dramatic changes in gene expression and root development to facilitate Pi acquisition and recycling. Although physiological responses to Pi starvation have been increasingly studied and understood, the initial molecular events that monitor and transmit information on external and internal Pi status remain to be elucidated in plants. This review summarizes molecular and developmental Pi starvation responses of higher plants and the evidence for coordinated regulation of gene expression, followed by a discussion of the potential involvement of plant hormones in Pi sensing and of molecular genetic approaches to elucidate plant signalling of low Pi availability. Complementary genetic strategies in Arabidopsis thaliana have been developed that are expected to identify components of plant signal transduction pathways involved in Pi sensing. Innovative screening methods utilize reporter gene constructs, conditional growth on organophosphates and the inhibitory properties of the Pi analogue phosphite, which hold the promise for significant advances in our understanding of the complex mechanisms by which plants regulate Pi-starvation responses.