More than any other technology, nucleic acid sequencing has enabled microbial ecology studies to be complemented with the data volumes necessary to capture the extent of microbial diversity and dynamics in a wide range of environments. In order to truly understand and predict environmental processes, however, the distinction between active, inactive and dead microbial cells is critical. Also, experimental designs need to be sensitive toward varying population complexity and activity, and temporal as well as spatial scales of process rates. There are a number of approaches, including single-cell techniques, which were designed to study in situ microbial activity and that have been successively coupled to nucleic acid sequencing. The exciting new discoveries regarding in situ microbial activity provide evidence that future microbial ecology studies will indispensably rely on techniques that specifically capture members of the microbiome active in the environment. Herein, we review those currently used activity-based approaches that can be directly linked to shotgun nucleic acid sequencing, evaluate their relevance to ecology studies, and discuss future directions.The ISME Journal advance online publication, 2 June 2017; doi:10.1038/ismej.2017.59.