The study of prokaryotic diversity has blossomed during the last 10-15 years as a result of the introduction of molecular identification, mostly based on direct 16S rRNA gene polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification and sequencing from natural samples. A large amount of information exists about the diversity of this specific gene. However, data from the field of bacterial population genetics and genomics make questionable the value of information regarding just one gene. Even if we accept 16S rRNA genes as useful for species identification, intraspecific variation in bacteria is so high that species catalogues are often of little value. The gene pools represented by an operational species are yet impossible to predict. On the other hand, adaptive features in prokaryotes are often coded in gene clusters (genomic islands) that can be cloned directly from the environment, sequenced and even expressed in a surrogate host. Thus, the study of the environmental genome or metagenome appears as an alternative that could eventually lead to a more realistic understanding of prokaryotic biodiversity, provide biotechnology with new tools and maybe even contribute to develop a model of prokaryotic evolution.