Chitin belongs to the most abundant biopolymers on earth where it has an important role as a structural element in crustaceans, insects, fungi and some phytoplankton. Missing evidence for long-term accumulation of chitin in nature implies fast turnover and as chitin is composed of aminosugar subunits it holds central roles in both carbon and nitrogen cycles. The aim of this thesis was to contribute to a better understanding of organic matter cycling by learning more about the diversity, function and ecology of bacteria that degrade chitin. A metagenome-enabled study of the spatial distribution of chitinolytic bacteria in aquatic ecosystems identified salinity as the major environmental factor for shaping their community composition. To address the role of alternative environmental variables controlling chitinolytic communities, a temporally resolved study was completed in a dimictic freshwater lake. Pronounced seasonal change in the indigenous chitinolytic community was observed and parallel measured environmental parameters pointed to the availability and crystalline form of chitin as significant controlling factors. The different ecological niches occupied by microbes that utilize chitin for growth were studied in an experimental study. Single-cell quantification of chitinolytic cells and cells incorporating chitin hydrolysis products suggested that commensal use of chitin hydrolysis products without simultaneous chitinase activity could be an important ecological strategy in freshwater bacterioplankton communities. Members of the ubiquitous and often quantitatively dominant group of freshwater Actinobacteria Ac1 were identified as particularly active in this “cheater” lifestyle. Further experiments based on artificially created gradients in bacterial diversity demonstrated the importance of specific bacterial populations and community composition rather than overall community richness in controlling more specific functions such as chitin and cellulose degradation. To conclude, results of this thesis provide insight into the biogeography, niche-separation and species interactions of the functional community of chitin degraders and the influence of general bacterial diversity to the respective system functioning.