The spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis), is well-adapted to maintain a natural cycle of alternately infecting vertebrates and blood-sucking ticks. During this cycle, B. burgdorferi interacts with a broad spectrum of vertebrate and arthropod tissues, acquires nutrients in diverse environments and evades killing by vertebrate and tick immune systems. The bacterium also senses when situations occur that necessitate transmission between hosts, such as when an infected tick is taking a blood meal from a potential host. To accurately accomplish the requirements necessary for survival in nature, B. burgdorferi must be keenly aware of its surroundings and respond accordingly. In this review, we trace studies performed to elucidate regulatory mechanisms employed by B. burgdorferi to control gene expression, and the development of models or "paradigms" to explain experimental results. Through comparisons of five borrelial gene families, it is readily apparent that each is controlled through a distinct mechanism. Furthermore, those results indicate that current models of interpreting in vitro data cannot accurately predict all aspects of B. burgdorferi environmental sensing and gene regulation in vivo.