Engineering microbes with new properties is an important goal in industrial engineering, to establish biological factories for production of biofuels, commodity chemicals and pharmaceutics. But engineering microbes to produce new compounds with high yield remains a major challenge toward economically viable production. Incorporating several modern approaches, including synthetic and systems biology, metabolic modeling and regulatory rewiring, has proven to significantly advance industrial strain engineering. This review highlights how comparative genomics can also facilitate strain engineering, by identifying novel genes and pathways, regulatory mechanisms and genetic background effects for engineering. We discuss how incorporating comparative genomics into the design-test-learn cycle of strain engineering can provide novel information that complements other engineering strategies.