Plant roots influence the biological, chemical and physical properties of rhizosphere soil. These effects are a consequence of their growth, their activity and the exudation of organic compounds from them. In natural ecosystems, the linkages between inputs of carbon from plants and microbial activity driven by these inputs are central to our understanding of nutrient cycling in soil and the productivity of these systems. This coupling of plant and microbial productivity is also of increasing importance in agriculture, where the shift towards low-input systems increases the dependence of plant production on nutrient cycling, as opposed to fertilizers. This review considers the processes by which plants can influence the cycling of nutrients in soil, and in particular the importance of organic inputs from roots in driving microbially mediated transformations of N. This coupling of plant inputs to the functioning of the microbial community is beneficial for acquisition of N by plants, particularly in low-input systems. This occurs through stimulation of microbes that produce exoenzymes that degrade organic matter, and by promoting cycling of N immobilized in the microbial biomass via predation by protozoa. Also, plants increase the cycling of N by changes in exudation in response to nitrogen supply around roots, and in response to browsing by herbivores. Plants can release compounds in exudates that directly affect the expression of genes in microbes, and this may be an important way of controlling their function to the benefit of the plant.