Increased awareness of the metabolic diversity within autotrophic nitrifying bacteria has led to a re-evaluation of their role in the cycling of nitrogen in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This has been accompanied by improvements in our ability to characterise natural populations of autotrophic ammonia oxidising bacteria through the application of molecular techniques. Molecular approaches indicate considerable diversity within natural populations and the association of different groups of ammonia oxidisers with different environments and changes in populations in response to environmental factors. To some extent, results from molecular approaches are consistent with those adopting laboratory enrichment and isolation strategies. Physiological studies on the latter demonstrate links between phylogenetic groups and possession of characteristics of relevance to ecological studies. Understanding of the significance of ammonia oxidiser species and functional diversity for global cycling of nitrogen require greater links between molecular analyses, physiological studies and measurements of nitrogen cycling processes. However, there is increasing evidence for physiological properties driving the environmental distribution of particular groups of ammonia oxidisers and for associations between nitrification process rates and ammonia oxidiser community structure.