In this mini-review, various aspects of homeostasis of microbial cells and its perturbation by antimicrobial agents will be discussed. First, outlining the position that the physiological studies on microbial behaviour using the modern molecular tools should have in food science sets the scene for the studies. Subsequently, the advent of functional genomics is discussed that allows full coverage of cellular reactions at unprecedented levels. Examples of weak organic acid resistance, the stress response against natural antimicrobial agents and responses against physicochemical factors show how we can now "open the black box" that microbes are, look inside and begin to understand how different cellular signalling cables are wired together. Using the analogy with machines, it will be indicated how the use of various signalling systems depends on the availability of substrates "fuel" to let the systems act in the context of the minimum energetic requirement cells have to let their housekeeping systems run. The outlook illustrates how new insights might be used to device knowledge-based rather than empirical combinations of preservation systems and how risk assessment models might be deviced that link the mechanistic insight to risk distributions of events in food manufacturing.