Engineering bacteria for measuring chemicals of environmental or toxicological concern (bioreporter bacteria) has grown slowly into a mature research area. Despite many potential advantages, current bioreporters do not perform well enough to comply with environmental detection standards. Basically, the reasons for this are the lack of engineering principles in the detection chain in the bioreporters. Here, we dissect critical steps in the detection chain and illustrate how bioreporter design could be improved by mutagenizing specificity and selectivity of the sensing and regulatory proteins, by newer expression strategies and application of different signalling networks. Furthermore, we describe how redesigning bioreporter assays with respect to pollutant transport into the cells and application of other detection devices can decrease detection limits and increase the speed of detection.