The centenary of Hiltner's recognition of a rhizosphere effect is a convenient point to assess the impact of such thinking on the direction of soil science. A review of the major soil journals suggests that for much of the last century, Hiltner's insight had little effect on mainstream thinking outside of soil microbiology, but this situation is changing rapidly as the consequences of spatial and temporal heterogeneity on soil functioning assumes greater importance. Studies of root growth, root distributions and of rhizosphere processes over the last 25 years demonstrate both the size and distribution of root systems and the associated inputs from roots to soils. These inputs result in a plethora of dynamic reactions at the root–soil interface whose consequences are felt at a range of temporal and spatial scales. Root growth and respiration, rhizodeposition, and uptake of water and nutrients result in biological, chemical and physical changes in soils over variable distances from the root surface so that the rhizosphere has different dimensions depending on the process considered. At the root length densities common for many crop species, much of the upper 0.1 m of soil might be influenced by root activity for mobile nutrients, water and root-emitted volatile compounds for a substantial proportion of the growing season. This brief review concludes that roots are an essential component of soil biology and of soil science.