A large number of prokaryotic regulatory elements have been interfaced artificially with biological circuits that execute specific expression programs. Engineering such circuits involves the association of input/output components that perform discrete signal-transfer steps in an autonomous fashion while connected to the rest of the network with a defined topology. Each of these nodes includes a signal-recognition component for the detection of the relevant physicochemical or biological stimulus, a molecular device able to translate the signal-sensing event into a defined output and a genetic module capable of understanding such an output as an input for the next component of the circuit. The final outcome of the process can be recorded by means of a reporter product. This review addresses three such aspects of forward engineering of signal-responding genetic parts. We first recap natural and non-natural regulatory assets for designing gene expression in response to predetermined signals – chemical or otherwise. These include transcriptional regulators developed by in vitro evolution (or designed from scratch), and synthetic riboswitches derived from in vitro selection of aptamers. Then we examine recent progress on reporter genes, whose expression allows the quantification and parametrization of signal-responding circuits in their entirety. Finally, we critically examine recent work on other reporters that confer bacteria with gross organoleptic properties (e.g. distinct odour) and the interfacing of signal-sensing devices with determinants of community behaviour.