A decade ago the compatible solutes mannosylglycerate (MG) and glucosylglycerate (GG) were considered to be rare in nature. Apart from two species of thermophilic bacteria, Thermus thermophilus and Rhodothermus marinus, and a restricted group of hyperthermophilic archaea, the Thermococcales, MG had only been identified in a few red algae. Glucosylglycerate was considered to be even rarer and had only been detected as an insignificant solute in two halophilic microorganisms, a cyanobacterium, as a component of a polysaccharide and of a glycolipid in two actinobacteria. Unlike the hyper/thermophilic MG-accumulating microorganisms, branching close to the root of the Tree of Life, those harbouring GG shared a mesophilic lifestyle. Exceptionally, the thermophilic bacterium Persephonella marina was reported to accumulate GG. However, and especially owing to the identification of the key-genes for MG and GG synthesis and to the escalating numbers of genomes available, a plethora of new organisms with the resources to synthesize these solutes has been recognized. The accumulation of GG as an ‘emergency’ compatible solute under combined salt stress and nitrogen-deficient conditions now seems to be a disseminated survival strategy from enterobacteria to marine cyanobacteria. In contrast, the thermophilic and extremely radiation-resistant bacterium Rubrobacter xylanophilus is the only actinobacterium known to accumulate MG, and under all growth conditions tested. This review addresses the environmental factors underlying the accumulation of MG, GG and derivatives in bacteria and archaea and their roles during stress adaptation or as precursors for more elaborated macromolecules. The diversity of pathways for MG and GG synthesis as well as those for some of their derivatives is also discussed. The importance of glycerate-derived organic solutes in the microbial world is only now being recognized. Their stress-dependent accumulation and the molecular aspects of their interactions with biomolecules have already fuelled several emerging applications in biotechnology and biomedicine.