Chemical ecology is a mechanistic approach to understanding the causes and consequences of species interactions, distribution, abundance, and diversity. The promise of chemical ecology stems from its potential to provide causal mechanisms that further our understanding of ecological interactions and allow us to more effectively manipulate managed systems. Founded on the notion that all organisms use endogenous hormones and chemical compounds that mediate interactions, chemical ecology has flourished over the past 50 years since its origin. In this essay we highlight the breadth of chemical ecology, from its historical focus on pheromonal communication, plant-insect interactions, and coevolution to frontier themes including community and ecosystem effects of chemically mediated species interactions. Emerging approaches including the -omics, phylogenetic ecology, the form and function of microbiomes, and network analysis, as well as emerging challenges (e.g., sustainable agriculture and public health) are guiding current growth of this field. Nonetheless, the directions and approaches we advocate for the future are grounded in classic ecological theories and hypotheses that continue to motivate our broader discipline.