The growth rate-dependent regulation of cell size, ribosomal content, and metabolic efficiency follows a common pattern in unicellular organisms: with increasing growth rates, cell size and ribosomal content increase and a shift to energetically inefficient metabolism takes place. The latter two phenomena are also observed in fast growing tumour cells and cell lines. These patterns suggest a fundamental principle of design. In biology such designs can often be understood as the result of the optimization of fitness. Here we show that in basic models of self-replicating systems these patterns are the consequence of maximizing the growth rate. Whereas most models of cellular growth consider a part of physiology, for instance only metabolism, the approach presented here integrates several subsystems to a complete self-replicating system. Such models can yield fundamentally different optimal strategies. In particular, it is shown how the shift in metabolic efficiency originates from a tradeoff between investments in enzyme synthesis and metabolic yields for alternative catabolic pathways. The models elucidate how the optimization of growth by natural selection shapes growth strategies. © 2009 EMBO and Macmillan Publishers Limited.