Carbon is a keystone element in global biogeochemical cycles. It plays a fundamental role in biotic and abiotic processes in the ocean, which intertwine to mediate the chemistry and redox status of carbon in the ocean and the atmosphere. The interactions between abiotic and biogenic carbon (e.g., CO2, CaCO3, organic matter) in the ocean are complex, and there is a half-century-old enigma about the existence of a huge reservoir of recalcitrant dissolved organic carbon (RDOC) that equates to the magnitude of the pool of atmospheric CO2. The concepts of the biological carbon pump (BCP) and the microbial loop (ML) shaped our understanding of the marine carbon cycle. The more recent concept of the microbial carbon pump (MCP), which is closely connected to those of the BCP and the ML, explicitly considers the significance of the ocean's RDOC reservoir and provides a mechanistic framework for the exploration of its formation and persistence. Understanding of the MCP has benefited from advanced “omics”, and novel research in biological oceanography and microbial biogeochemistry. The need to predict the ocean’s response to climate change makes an integrative understanding of the MCP, BCP and ML a high priority. In this review, we summarize and discuss progress since the proposal of the MCP in 2010 and formulate research questions for the future.