Archaea represent a considerable fraction of the prokaryotic world in marine and terrestrial ecosystems, indicating that organisms from this domain might have a large impact on global energy cycles. However, many novel archaeal lineages that have been detected by molecular phylogenetic approaches have remained elusive because no laboratory-cultivated strains are available. Environmental genomic analyses have recently provided clues about the potential metabolic strategies of several of the uncultivated and abundant archaeal species, including non-thermophilic terrestrial and marine crenarchaeota and methanotrophic euryarchaeota. These initial studies of natural archaeal populations also revealed an unexpected degree of genomic variation that indicates considerable heterogeneity among archaeal strains. Here, we review genomic studies of uncultivated archaea within a framework of the phylogenetic diversity and ecological distribution of this domain.