Among players in neurobiology, ion channels are the demigods that underlie all our senses, behaviour and intelligence. In animals, these ‘gated pores’ detect ligands, voltage, heat or stretch forces and emit electric or ionic signals. Patch clamp and genome sequencing now show that nearly all microbes also have these ‘smart’ molecules. Microbial channel proteins have yielded crystal structures so dear to neuroscientists. However, their natural roles in microbial physiology remain largely unknown. The intellectual and technical schisms between ‘neuro’ and ‘micro’ biology must be bridged before we know how we became so smart, and whether microbes are just as smart.