Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi form symbiotic associations with the roots of most plants, thereby mediating nutrient and carbon fluxes, plant performance, and ecosystem dynamics. Although considerable effort has been expended to understand the keystone ecological position of AM symbioses, most studies have been limited in scope to recording organism occurrences and identities, as determined from morphological characters and (mainly) ribosomal sequence markers. In order to overcome these restrictions and circumvent the shortcomings of culture- and phylogeny-based approaches, we propose a shift toward plant and fungal protein-encoding genes as more immediate indicators of mycorrhizal contributions to ecological processes. A number of candidate target genes, involved in the uptake of phosphorus and nitrogen, carbon cycling, and overall metabolic activity, are proposed. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of future protein-encoding gene marker and current (phylo-) taxonomic approaches for studying the impact of AM fungi on plant growth and ecosystem functioning. Approaches based on protein-encoding genes are expected to open opportunities to advance the mechanistic understanding of ecological roles of mycorrhizas in natural and managed ecosystems. © 2009 New Phytologist.