As the world’s oceans continue to undergo drastic changes, understanding the role of key species therein will become increasingly important. To explore the role of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua Gadidae) in the ecosystem, we reviewed biological interactions between cod and its prey, predators and competitors within six ecosystems taken from a broad geographic range: three are cod-capelin (Mallotus villosus Osmeridae) systems towards cod’s northern Atlantic limit (Barents Sea, Iceland and Newfoundland–Labrador), two are more diverse systems towards the southern end of the range (North Sea and Georges Bank–Gulf of Maine), and one is a species-poor system with an unusual physical and biotic environment (Baltic Sea). We attempt a synthesis of the role of cod in these six ecosystems and speculate on how it might change in response to a variety of influences, particularly climate change, in a fashion that may apply to a wide range of species. We find cod prey, predators and competitors functionally similar in all six ecosystems. Conversely, we estimate different magnitudes for the role of cod in an ecosystem, with consequently different effects on cod, their prey and predator populations. Fishing has generally diminished the ecological role of cod. What remains unclear is how additional climate variability will alter cod stocks, and thus its role in the ecosystem.