The composition and activities of microbes from diverse habitats have been the focus of intense research during the past decade with this research being spurred on largely by advances in molecular biology and genomic technologies. In recent years environmental microbiology has entered very firmly into the age of the 'omics' – (meta)genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics – with probably others on the rise. Microbes are essential participants in all biogeochemical processes on our planet, and the practical applications of what we are learning from the use of molecular approaches has altered how we view biological systems. In addition, there is considerable potential to use information about uncultured microbes in biodiscovery research as microbes provide a rich source of discovery for novel genes, enzymes and metabolic pathways. This review explores the brief history of genomic and metagenomic approaches to study environmental microbial assemblages and describes some of the future challenges involved in broadening our approaches – leading to new insights for understanding environmental problems and enabling biodiscovery research.