Biogeochemistry is at the dawn of an era in which molecular advances enable the discovery of novel microorganisms having unforeseen metabolic capabilities, revealing new insight into the underlying processes regulating elemental cycles at local to global scales. Traditionally, biogeochemical inquiry began by studying a process of interest, and then focusing downward to uncover the microorganisms and metabolic pathways mediating that process. With the ability to sequence functional genes from the environment, molecular approaches now enable the flow of inquiry in the opposite direction. Here, we argue that a focus on functional genes, the microorganisms in which they reside, and the interaction of those organisms with the broader microbial community could transform our understanding of many globally important biogeochemical processes. ?? 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.