At the heart of microbial ecology lies a true scientific dichotomy. On the one hand, we know microbes are responsible for processes on which all other life on Earth is dependent; their removal would mean the cessation of all known life. However, in opposition, the majority of extant microbial species in natural environments have never been cultured or studied in a laboratory as living organisms. Owing to these factors, the question of "who does what?" has been a major barrier to understanding how microbially mediated ecosystem level events occur. Recently, the use of stable isotopes (13C) to trace carbon from specific substrates into microbes that assimilate carbon from that substrate has significantly advanced our understanding of the relationship between environmental processes and microbial phylogeny.