Diatoms (Bacillariophyta), one of the most abundant and diverse groups of marine phytoplankton, respond rapidly to the supply of new nutrients, often out-competing other phytoplankton. Herein, we integrated analyses of the evolution, distribution and expression modulation of two gene families involved in diatom nitrogen uptake (DiAMT1 and DiNRT2), in order to infer the main drivers of divergence in a key functional trait of phytoplankton. Our results suggest that major steps in the evolution of the two gene families reflected key events triggering diatom radiation and diversification. Their expression is modulated in the contemporary ocean by seawater temperature, nitrate and iron concentrations. Moreover, the differences in diversity and expression of these gene families throughout the water column hint at a possible link with bacterial activity. This study represents a proof-of-concept of how a holistic approach may shed light on the functional biology of organisms in their natural environment.