Beyond fuelling cellular activities with building blocks and energy, metabolism also integrates environmental conditions into intracellular signals. The underlying regulatory network is complex and multifaceted: it ranges from slow interactions, such as changing gene expression, to rapid ones, such as the modulation of protein activity via post-translational modification or the allosteric binding of small molecules. In this Review, we outline the coordination of common metabolic tasks, including nutrient uptake, central metabolism, the generation of energy, the supply of amino acids and protein synthesis. Increasingly, a set of key metabolites is recognized to control individual regulatory circuits, which carry out specific functions of information input and regulatory output. Such a modular view of microbial metabolism facilitates an intuitive understanding of the molecular mechanisms that underlie cellular decision making.