Although many environmental microbial populations are large and genetically diverse, both the level of diversity and the extent to which it is ecologically relevant remain enigmatic. Because the effective (or long-term) population size, Ne, is one of the parameters that determines population genetic diversity, tests and simulations that assume selectively neutral mutations may help to identify the processes that have shaped microbial diversity. Using ecologically important genes, tests of selective neutrality suggest that adaptive as well as non-adaptive types of selection act and that departure from neutrality may be widespread or restricted to small groups of genotypes. Population genetic simulations using population sizes between 103 and 107 suggest extremely high levels of microbial diversity in environments that sustain large populations. However, census and effective population sizes may differ considerably, and because we know nothing of the evolutionary history of environmental microbial populations, we also have no idea what Ne of environmental populations is. On the one hand, this reflects our ignorance of the microbial world. On the other hand, the tests and simulations illustrate interactions between microbial diversity and microbial population genetics that should inform our thinking in microbial ecology. Because of the different views on microbial diversity across these disciplines, such interactions are crucial if we are to understand the role of genes in microbial communities.