Isotopic pool dilution using 15N is proving to be a valuable tool for increasing our understanding of gross N cycling processes and our ability to both model these processes and link them to microbial function. However, not all applications are appropriate. Many of the questions asked by agronomists and soil scientists can often be addressed by simpler experiments in which measurements of the main parameters of inorganic and total N content of soil and plant components would suffice. In addition, the theory, assumptions and techniques associated with the calculation of gross N fluxes can lead to large errors if not applied correctly. Some preliminary assessment of the principle N transformation processes to be studied, followed by an optimisation of the experimental conditions are needed for the effective application of 15N pool dilution. When applied correctly under carefully controlled laboratory incubations, the technique has been used successfully to quantify gross N fluxes and to understand the fundamental processes that regulate individual microbial N pathways. This has improved our understanding of how C and N cycles are linked, and thus has led us to question the most appropriate structure of C and N cycling models. Field based 15N pool dilution studies have been used successfully to study the climatic influence on the soil N cycle and also to quantify the impact of external inputs. Further field-based studies are required to aid model development and evaluation. Linking soil microbial/molecular ecology with process-based studies of microbial nutrient cycling presents a new and exciting field of research that will benefit from the further application of isotopic pool dilution techniques for N and other nutrients.