Dynamic shifts between open reading frames and the redefinition of codon meaning at specific sites, programmed by signals in mRNA, permits versatility of gene expression. Such alterations are characteristic of organisms in all domains of life and serve a variety of functional purposes. In this article, we concentrate on programmed ribosomal frameshifting, stop codon read-through and transcriptional slippage in the decoding of phage genes and bacterial mobile elements. Together with their eukaryotic counterparts, the genes encoding these elements are the richest known source of nonstandard decoding. Recent analyses revealed several novel sequences encoding programmed alterations in gene decoding and provide a glimpse of the emerging picture.