Bacteria play a central role in the cycling of carbon, yet our understanding of the relationship between the taxonomic composition and the degradation of dissolved organic matter (DOM) is still poor. In this experimental study, we were able to demonstrate a direct link between community composition and ecosystem functioning in that differently structured aquatic bacterial communities differed in their degradation of terrestrially derived DOM. Although the same amount of carbon was processed, both the temporal pattern of degradation and the compounds degraded differed among communities. We, moreover, uncovered that low-molecular-weight carbon was available to all communities for utilisation, whereas the ability to degrade carbon of greater molecular weight was a trait less widely distributed. Finally, whereas the degradation of either low- or high-molecular-weight carbon was not restricted to a single phylogenetic clade, our results illustrate that bacterial taxa of similar phylogenetic classification differed substantially in their association with the degradation of DOM compounds. Applying techniques that capture the diversity and complexity of both bacterial communities and DOM, our study provides new insight into how the structure of bacterial communities may affect processes of biogeochemical significance.The ISME Journal advance online publication, 21 August 2015; doi:10.1038/ismej.2015.131.