The microbial way of life spans at least 3.8 billion years of evolution. Microbial organisms are pervasive, ubiquitous, and essential components of all ecosystems. The geochemical composition of Earth's biosphere has been molded largely by microbial activities. Yet, despite the predominance of microbes during the course of life's history, general principles and theory of microbial evolution and ecology are not well developed. Until recently, investigators had no idea how accurately cultivated microorganisms represented overall microbial diversity. The development of molecular phylogenetics has recently enabled characterization of naturally occurring microbial biota without cultivation. Free from the biases of culture-based studies, molecular phylogenetic surveys have revealed a vast array of new microbial groups. Many of these new microbes are widespread and abundant among contemporary microbiota and fall within novel divisions that branch deep within the tree of life. The breadth and extent of extant microbial diversity has become much clearer. A remaining challenge for microbial biologists is to better characterize the biological properties of these newly described microbial taxa. This more comprehensive picture will provide much better perspective on the natural history, ecology, and evolution of extant microbial life.