Mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite sequences are powerful genetic markers for inferring the genealogy and the population genetic structure of animals but they have only limited resolution for organisms that display low genetic variability due to recent strong bottlenecks. An alternative source of data for deciphering migrations and origins in genetically uniform hosts can be provided by some of their microbes, if their evolutionary history correlates closely with that of the host. In this review, we first discuss how a variety of viruses, and the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, can be used as genetic tracers for one of the most intensively studied species, Homo sapiens. Then, we review statistical problems and limitations that affect the calculation of particular population genetic parameters for these microbes, such as mutation rates, with particular emphasis on the effects of recombination, selection and mode of transmission. Finally, we extend the discussion to other host–parasite systems and advocate the adoption of an integrative approach to both sampling and analysis.