Phylogeny is an ecologically meaningful way to classify plants and animals, as closely related taxa frequently have similar ecological characteristics, functional traits and effects on ecosystem processes. For bacteria, however, phylogeny has been argued to be an unreliable indicator of an organism's ecology owing to evolutionary processes more common to microbes such as gene loss and lateral gene transfer, as well as convergent evolution. Here we use advanced stable isotope probing with 13 C and 18 O to show that evolutionary history has ecological significance for in situ bacterial activity. Phylogenetic organization in the activity of bacteria sets the stage for characterizing the functional attributes of bacterial taxonomic groups. Connecting identity with function in this way will allow scientists to begin building a mechanistic understanding of how bacterial community composition regulates critical ecosystem functions.