The chemical industry is currently reliant on a historically inexpensive, petroleum-based carbon feedstock that generates a small collection of platform chemicals from which highly efficient chemical conversions lead to the manufacture of a large variety of chemical products. Recently, a number of factors have coalesced to provide the impetus to explore alternative renewable sources of carbon. Here we discuss the potential impact on the chemical industry of shifting from non-renewable carbon sources to renewable carbon sources. This change to the manufacture of chemicals from biological carbon sources will provide an opportunity for the biological research community to contribute fundamental knowledge concerning carbon metabolism and its regulation. We discuss whether fundamental biological research into metabolic processes at a holistic level, made possible by completed genome sequences and integrated with detailed structural understanding of biocatalysts, can change the chemical industry from being dependent on fossil-carbon feedstocks to using biorenewable feedstocks. We illustrate this potential by discussing the prospect of building a platform technology based upon a concept of combinatorial biosynthesis, which would explore the enzymological flexibilities of polyketide biosynthesis.