Changes in the trace gas composition of the atmosphere over glacial–interglacial cycles are linked to changes in the oceanic carbon cycle. This paper examines the role of biologically driven fluxes of organic and inorganic carbon in modifying the carbon dioxide chemistry of the oceans, and the corresponding implications for the partitioning of CO2 between the atmosphere and ocean. Relevant details of the marine carbon system are presented together with an assessment of the significance of remineralization and dissolution processes. Recent estimates of the marine carbonate fluxes show significant uncertainties and inconsistencies which must be resolved in order to assess fully the role of the oceans' biota in the marine carbon system. Various types of ocean carbon cycle models have been developed in order to interpret the changes in past atmospheric carbon dioxide. Some take account of the role of the oceans' biota, focussing in the main on the cycling of organic matter. Relatively few have considered the role of the carbonate pump and the subtle interactions between organic and inorganic carbon cycling. The significance of carbonate formation and dissolution, and of the effects of global change on the marine carbonate system, for air–sea fluxes of CO2 are discussed. Finally some recommendations for future research are made in order to improve our understanding of how spatial and temporal variation in marine carbonate fluxes, in conjunction with processes determining the oxidation and burial of organic matter in the oceans, affect levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.