A fundamental yet elusive goal of ecology is to predict the structure of communities from the environmental conditions they experience. Trait-based approaches to terrestrial plant communities have shown that functional traits can help reveal the mechanisms underlying community assembly, but such approaches have not been tested on the microbes that dominate ecosystem processes in the ocean. Here, we test whether functional traits can explain community responses to seasonal environmental fluctuation, using a time series of the phytoplankton of the English Channel. We show that interspecific variation in response to major limiting resources, light and nitrate, can be well-predicted by lab-measured traits characterising light utilisation, nitrate utilisation and maximum growth rate. As these relationships were predicted a priori, using independently measured traits, our results show that functional traits provide a strong mechanistic foundation for understanding the structure and dynamics of ecological communities.