The finding that total viral abundance is higher than total prokaryotic abundance and that a significant fraction of the prokaryotic community is infected with phages in aquatic systems has stimulated research on the ecology of prokaryotic viruses and their role in ecosystems. This review treats the ecology of prokaryotic viruses ('phages') in marine, freshwater and soil systems from a 'virus point of view'. The abundance of viruses varies strongly in different environments and is related to bacterial abundance or activity suggesting that the majority of the viruses found in the environment are typically phages. Data on phage diversity are sparse but indicate that phages are extremely diverse in natural systems. Lytic phages are predators of prokaryotes, whereas lysogenic and chronic infections represent a parasitic interaction. Some forms of lysogeny might be described best as mutualism. The little existing ecological data on phage populations indicate a large variety of environmental niches and survival strategies. The host cell is the main resource for phages and the resource quality, i.e., the metabolic state of the host cell, is a critical factor in all steps of the phage life cycle. Virus-induced mortality of prokaryotes varies strongly on a temporal and spatial scale and shows that phages can be important predators of bacterioplankton. This mortality and the release of cell lysis products into the environment can strongly influence microbial food web processes and biogeochemical cycles. Phages can also affect host diversity, e.g., by 'killing the winner' and keeping in check competitively dominant species or populations. Moreover, they mediate gene transfer between prokaryotes, but this remains largely unknown in the environment. Genomics or proteomics are providing us now with powerful tools in phage ecology, but final testing will have to be performed in the environment.