Activated sludge systems are designed and operated globally to remove phosphorus microbiologically, a process called enhanced biological phosphorus removal (EBPR). Yet little is still known about the ecology of EBPR processes, the microbes involved, their functions there and the possible reasons why they often perform unreliably. The application of rRNA-based methods to analyze EBPR community structure has changed dramatically our understanding of the microbial populations responsible for EBPR, but many substantial gaps in our knowledge of the population dynamics of EBPR and its underlying mechanisms remain. This review critically examines what we once thought we knew about the microbial ecology of EBPR, what we think we now know, and what still needs to be elucidated before these processes can be operated and controlled more reliably than is currently possible. It looks at the history of EBPR, the currently available biochemical models, the structure of the microbial communities found in EBPR systems, possible identities of the bacteria responsible, and the evidence why these systems might operate suboptimally. The review stresses the need to extend what have been predominantly laboratory-based studies to full-scale operating plants. It aims to encourage microbiologists and process engineers to collaborate more closely and to bring an interdisciplinary approach to bear on this complex ecosystem.