Protists, which are single-celled eukaryotes, critically influence the ecology and chemistry of marine ecosystems, but genome-based studies of these organisms have lagged behind those of other microorganisms. However, recent transcriptomic studies of cultured species, complemented by meta-omics analyses of natural communities, have increased the amount of genetic information available for poorly represented branches on the tree of eukaryotic life. This information is providing insights into the adaptations and interactions between protists and other microorganisms and macroorganisms, but many of the genes sequenced show no similarity to sequences currently available in public databases. A better understanding of these newly discovered genes will lead to a deeper appreciation of the functional diversity and metabolic processes in the ocean. In this Review, we summarize recent developments in our understanding of the ecology, physiology and evolution of protists, derived from transcriptomic studies of cultured strains and natural communities, and discuss how these novel large-scale genetic datasets will be used in the future.