The accessibility of new genomic resources, high-throughput molecular technologies and analytical approaches such as genome scans have made finding genes contributing to fitness variation in natural populations an increasingly feasible task. Once candidate genes are identified, we argue that it is necessary to take a mechanistic approach and work up through the levels of biological organization to fully understand the impacts of genetic variation at these candidate genes. We demonstrate how this approach provides testable hypotheses about the causal links among levels of biological organization, and assists in designing relevant experiments to test the effects of genetic variation on phenotype, whole-organism performance capabilities and fitness. We review some of the research programs that have incorporated mechanistic approaches when examining naturally occurring genetic and phenotypic variation and use these examples to highlight the value of developing a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between genotype and fitness. We give suggestions to guide future research aimed at uncovering and understanding the genetic basis of adaptation and argue that further integration of mechanistic approaches will help molecular ecologists better understand the evolution of natural populations.