The bacterial species definition, despite its eminent practical significance for identification, diagnosis, quarantine and diversity surveys, remains a very difficult issue to advance. Genomics now offers novel insights into intra-species diversity and the potential for emergence of a more soundly based system. Although we share the excitement, we argue that it is premature for a universal change to the definition because current knowledge is based on too few phylogenetic groups and too few samples of natural populations. Our analysis of five important bacterial groups suggests, however, that more stringent standards for species may be justifiable when a solid understanding of gene content and ecological distinctiveness becomes available. Our analysis also reveals what is actually encompassed in a species according to the current standards, in terms of whole-genome sequence and gene-content diversity, and shows that this does not correspond to coherent clusters for the environmental Burkholderia and Shewanella genera examined. In contrast, the obligatory pathogens, which have a very restricted ecological niche, do exhibit clusters. Therefore, the idea of biologically meaningful clusters of diversity that applies to most eukaryotes may not be universally applicable in the microbial world, or if such clusters exist, they may be found at different levels of distinction.