How do genetic variation and evolutionary change in critical species affect the composition and functioning of populations, communities and ecosystems? Illuminating the links in the causal chain from genes up to ecosystems is a particularly exciting prospect now that the feedbacks between ecological and evolutionary changes are known to be bidirectional. Yet to fully explore phenomena that span multiple levels of the biological hierarchy requires model organisms and systems that feature a comprehensive triad of strong ecological interactions in nature, experimental tractability in diverse contexts and accessibility to modern genomic tools. The water flea Daphnia satisfies these criteria, and genomic approaches capitalizing on the pivotal role Daphnia plays in the functioning of pelagic freshwater food webs will enable investigations of eco-evolutionary dynamics in unprecedented detail. Because its ecology is profoundly influenced by both genetic polymorphism and phenotypic plasticity, Daphnia represents a model system with tremendous potential for developing a mechanistic understanding of the relationship between traits at the genetic, organismal and population levels, and consequences for community and ecosystem dynamics. Here, we highlight the combination of traits and ecological interactions that make Daphnia a definitive model system, focusing on the additional power and capabilities enabled by recent molecular and genomic advances.