The way that nutrients cycle through atmospheric, terrestrial, oceanic and associated biotic reservoirs can constrain rates of biological production and help structure ecosystems on land and in the sea. On a global scale, cycling of nutrients also affects the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because of their capacity for rapid growth, marine microorganisms are a major component of global nutrient cycles. Understanding what controls their distributions and their diverse suite of nutrient transformations is a major challenge facing contemporary biological oceanographers. What is emerging is an appreciation of the previously unknown degree of complexity within the marine microbial community.