Bacterial systematists face unique challenges when trying to identify ecologically meaningful units of biological diversity. Whereas plant and animal systematists are guided by a theory-based concept of species, microbiologists have yet to agree upon a set of ecological and evolutionary properties that will serve to define a bacterial species. Advances in molecular techniques have given us a glimpse of the tremendous diversity present within the microbial world, but significant work remains to be done in order to understand the ecological and evolutionary dynamics that can account for the origin, maintenance, and distribution of that diversity. We have developed a conceptual framework that uses ecological and evolutionary theory to identify the DNA sequence clusters most likely corresponding to the fundamental units of bacterial diversity. Taking into account diverse models of bacterial evolution, we argue that bacterial systematics should seek to identify ecologically distinct groups with evidence of a history of coexistence, as based on interpretation of sequence clusters. This would establish a theory-based species unit that holds the dynamic properties broadly attributed to species outside of microbiology.