Microbial physiological processes are intimately involved in nutrient cycling. However, it remains unclear to what extent microbial diversity or community composition is important for determining the rates of ecosystem-scale functions. There are many examples of positive correlations between microbial diversity and ecosystem function, but how microbial communities ‘map’ onto ecosystem functions remain unresolved. This uncertainty limits our ability to predict and manage crucial microbially mediated processes such as nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions. To overcome this challenge, we propose integrating traditional biodiversity–ecosystem function research with ideas from genotype–phenotype mapping in organisms. We identify two insights from genotype–phenotype mapping that could be useful for microbial biodiversity–ecosystem function studies: the concept of searching ‘agnostically’ for markers of ecosystem function and controlling for population stratification to identify microorganisms uniquely associated with ecosystem function. We illustrate the potential for these approaches to elucidate microbial biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships by analysing a subset of published data measuring methane oxidation rates from tropical soils. We assert that combining the approaches of traditional biodiversity–ecosystem function research with ideas from genotype–phenotype mapping will generate novel hypotheses about how complex microbial communities drive ecosystem function and help scientists predict and manage changes to ecosystem functions resulting from human activities. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Conceptual challenges in microbial community ecology’.