Expression of biosynthetic gene clusters in heterologous hosts for natural product production and combinatorial biosynthesis is playing an increasingly important role in natural product-based drug discovery and development programmes. This review highlights the requirements and challenges associated with this conceptually simple strategy of using surrogate hosts for the production of natural products in good yields and for the generation of novel analogues by combinatorial biosynthesis methods, taking advantage of the recombinant DNA technologies and tools available in the model hosts. Specific topics addressed include: i) the mobilisation of biosynthetic gene clusters using different vector systems; ii) the selection of suitable model heterologous hosts; iii) the requirement of post-translational protein modifications and precursor supply within the model hosts; iv) the influence of promoters and pathway regulators; and v) the choice of suitable fermentation conditions. Lastly, the use of heterologous expression in combinatorial biosynthesis is addressed. Future directions for model heterologous host engineering and the optimisation of natural product biosynthetic gene cluster expression in heterologous hosts are also discussed.