Within the European Network of Excellence (NoE) on Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning (MarBEF), marine biodiversity scientists from across Europe have been brought together to focus on 3 broad themes. Theme 1 describes large-scale (and long-term) distribution patterns of marine biodiversity, Theme 2 examines the consequences of changes in marine biodiversity for the functioning of marine ecosystems, and Theme 3 explores and disseminates the socio-economic consequences of changes in marine biodiversity and biodiversity-mediated processes. Within MarBEF Theme 1, a large collaborative effort has produced an integrated database of species occurrence information (MacroBen), which contains data of quantitative samples of soft-sediment benthic infauna collected in European continental waters, from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Papers in this Theme Section describe initial studies based on the database. The late Prof. John S. Gray led activities within MarBEF Theme 1 for the first 2.5 yr, during which time the majority of the work described in this Theme Section was set in motion, and he continued to be involved in the work memory.