Rice is the staple food for more than half of the world’s growing population. While the area planted to wetland rice is expected to increase further, virtually nothing is known about the long-term development of the respective microbial communities, and how these might influence biogeochemistry. Focusing on methane oxidizing bacteria, we studied a chronosequence of paddy fields in China aged 50–2000 years. Potential methanotrophic activity increased substantially with age of soil. Community composition was relatively similar in all fields. However, growth and activity of one particular subgroup of methanotrophs correlated to soil age suggesting an intricate abiotic control on methanotrophs evolving with time. Our results demonstrate that continuous rice agriculture does not only shape the microbial community, but also modifies the micro-environment in a way enabling faster growth and higher activity of selected populations.