The relationship between biodiversity and ecological processes is currently the focus of considerable research effort, made all the more urgent by the rate of biodiversity loss world-wide. Rigorous experimental approaches to this question have been dominated by terrestrial ecologists, but shallow-water marine systems offer great opportunities by virtue of their relative ease of manipulation, fast response times and well-understood effects of macrofauna on sediment processes. In this paper, we describe a series of experiments whereby species richness has been manipulated in a controlled way and the concentrations of nutrients (ammonium, nitrate and phosphate) in the overlying water measured under these different treatments. The results indicate variable effects of species and location on ecosystem processes, and are discussed in the context of emerging mainstream ecological theory on biodiversity and ecosystem relations. Extensions of the application of the experimental approach to species-rich, large-scale benthic systems are discussed and the potential for novel analyses of existing data sets is highlighted. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.