Bacteria may be one of the most abundant and species–rich groups of organisms, and they mediate many critical ecosystem processes. Despite the ecological importance of bacteria, past practical and theoretical constraints have limited our ability to document patterns of bacterial diversity and to understand the processes that determine these patterns. However, recent advances in molecular techniques that allow more thorough detection of bacteria in nature have made it possible to examine such patterns and processes. Here, we review recent studies of the distribution of free–living bacterial diversity and compare our current understanding with what is known about patterns in plant and animal diversity. From these recent studies a preliminary picture is emerging: bacterial diversity may exhibit regular patterns, and in some cases these patterns may be qualitatively similar to those observed for plants and animals.