Dissolved organic matter (DOM) in the oceans is one of the largest pools of reduced carbon on Earth, comparable in size to the atmospheric CO2 reservoir. A vast number of compounds are present in DOM, and they play important roles in all major element cycles, contribute to the storage of atmospheric CO2 in the ocean, support marine ecosystems, and facilitate interactions between organisms. At the heart of the DOM cycle lie molecular-level relationships between the individual compounds in DOM and the members of the ocean microbiome that produce and consume them. In the past, these connections have eluded clear definition because of the sheer numerical complexity of both DOM molecules and microorganisms. Emerging tools in analytical chemistry, microbiology, and informatics are breaking down the barriers to a fuller appreciation of these connections. Here we highlight questions being addressed using recent methodological and technological developments in those fields and consider how these advances are transforming our understanding of some of the most important reactions of the marine carbon cycle.