Microbial eukaryotes (protists) are structurally, developmentally and behaviourally more complex than their prokaryotic cousins. This complexity makes it more difficult to translate genomic and metagenomic data into accurate functional inferences about systems ranging all the way from molecular and cellular levels to global ecological networks. This problem can be traced back to the advent of the cytoskeleton and endomembrane systems at the origin of eukaryotes, which endowed them with a range of complex structures and behaviours that still largely dominate how they evolve and interact within microbial communities. But unlike the diverse metabolic properties that evolved within prokaryotes, the structural and behavioural characteristics that strongly define how protists function in the environment cannot readily be inferred from genomic data, since there is generally no simple correlation between a gene and a discrete activity or function. A deeper understanding of protists at both cellular and ecological levels, therefore, requires not only high-throughput genomics but also linking such data to direct observations of natural history and cell biology. This is challenging since these observations typically require cultivation, which is lacking for most protists. Potential remedies with current technology include developing a more phylogenetically diverse range of model systems to better represent the diversity, as well as combining high-throughput, single-cell genomics with microscopic documentation of the subject cells to link sequence with structure and behaviour. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue 'Single cell ecology'.
Keywords: behaviour; ecology; eukaryotic; evolution; genomics; protist.