Nitrification, the aerobic oxidation of ammonia to nitrate via nitrite, has been suggested to have been a central part of the global biogeochemical nitrogen cycle since the oxygenation of Earth. The cultivation of several ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) as well as the discovery that archaeal ammonia monooxygenase (amo)-like gene sequences are nearly ubiquitously distributed in the environment and outnumber their bacterial counterparts in many habitats fundamentally revised our understanding of nitrification. Surprising insights into the physiological distinctiveness of AOA are mirrored by the recognition of the phylogenetic uniqueness of these microbes, which fall within a novel archaeal phylum now known as Thaumarchaeota. The relative importance of AOA in nitrification, compared to ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), is still under debate. This minireview provides a synopsis of our current knowledge of the diversity and physiology of AOA, the factors controlling their ecology, and their role in carbon cycling as well as their potential involvement in the production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. It emphasizes the importance of activity-based analyses in AOA studies and formulates priorities for future research.