Interaction with plants around their roots and foliage forms the natural habitat for a wide range of gram-negative bacteria such as Burkholderia, Pseudomonas and Ralstonia. During these interactions many of these bacteria facilitate highly beneficial processes such as the breakdown of pollutants or enhancement of crop growth. All these bacterial species are also capable of causing opportunistic infections in vulnerable individuals, especially people with cystic fibrosis (CF). Here we will review the current understanding of the Burkholderia cepacia complex (Bcc) as a group of model opportunistic pathogens, contrasting their clinical epidemiology with their ecological importance. Currently, the B. cepacia complex is composed of nine formally named species groups which are all difficult to identify using phenotypic methods. Genetic methods such as 16S rRNA and recA gene sequence analysis have proven useful for Bcc species identification. Multilocus sequence typing (MLST) is also emerging as a very useful tool for both Bcc strain and species identification. Historically, Burkholderia cenocepacia was the most dominant Bcc pathogen in CF, however, probably as a result of strict infection control practices introduced to control the spread of this species, its prevalence has been reduced. Burkholderia multivorans is the now the most dominant Bcc infection encountered in the UK CF population, a changing epidemiology that also appears to be occurring in the US CF population. The distribution of Bcc species residing in the natural environment may vary considerably with the type of environment examined. Clonally identical Bcc strains have been found to occur in the natural environment and cause infection. The contamination of medical devices, disinfectants and pharmaceutical formulations has also been directly linked to several outbreaks of infection. In the last 10 years considerable progress has been made in understanding the natural biology and clinical infections caused by this fascinating group of bacteria.