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The Earth's cryosphere comprises those regions that are cold enough for water to turn into ice. Recent findings show that the icy realms of polar oceans, glaciers and ice sheets are inhabited by microorganisms of all three domains of life, and that temperatures below 0 °C are an integral force in the diversification of microbial life. Cold-adapted microorganisms maintain key ecological functions in icy habitats: where sunlight penetrates the ice, photoautotrophy is the basis for complex food webs, whereas in dark subglacial habitats, chemoautotrophy reigns. This Review summarizes current knowledge of the microbial ecology of frozen waters, including the diversity of niches, the composition of microbial communities at these sites and their biogeochemical activities.