Thirty years have passed since Carl Woese proposed three primary domains of life based on the phylogenetic analysis of ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes. Adopted by researchers worldwide, rRNA has become the "gold-standard" for molecular taxonomy, biodiversity analysis and the identification of microorganisms. The more than 700,000 rRNA sequences in public databases constitute an unprecedented hallmark of the richness of microbial biodiversity on earth. The International Workshop on Ribosomal RNA Technology convened on April 7-9, 2008 in Bremen, Germany (http://www.arb-silva.de/rrna-workshop) to summarize the current status of the field and strategize on the best ways of proceeding on both biological and technological fronts. In five sessions, 26 leading international speakers and approximately 120 participants representing diverse disciplines discussed new technological approaches to address three basic ecological questions: "Who is out there?" "How many are there?" and "What are they doing?".