The regulation of carbon metabolism in plant cells responds sensitively to the levels of carbon metabolites that are available. The sensing and signalling systems that are involved in this process form a complex web that comprises metabolites, transporters, enzymes, transcription factors and hormones. Exactly which metabolites are sensed is not yet known, but candidates include sucrose, glucose and other hexoses, glucose-6-phosphate, trehalose-6-phosphate, trehalose and adenosine monophosphate. Important components of the signalling pathways include sucrose non-fermenting-1-related protein kinase-1 (SnRK1) and hexokinase; sugar transporters are also implicated. A battery of genes and enzymes involved in carbohydrate metabolism, secondary metabolism, nitrogen assimilation and photosynthesis are under the control of these pathways and fundamental developmental processes such as germination, sprouting, pollen development and senescence are affected by them. Here we review the current knowledge of carbon metabolite sensing and signalling in plants, drawing comparisons with homologous and analogous systems in animals and fungi. We also review the evidence for cross-talk between carbon metabolite and other major signalling systems in plant cells and the prospects for manipulating this fundamentally important aspect of metabolic regulation for crop improvement.