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Cultivation of the ubiquitous SAR11 marine bacterioplankton clade


The α-proteobacterial lineage that contains SAR11 and related ribosomal RNA gene clones was among the first groups of organisms to be identified when cultivation-independent approaches based on rRNA gene cloning and sequencing were applied to survey microbial diversity in natural ecosystems1. This group accounts for 26% of all ribosomal RNA genes that have been identified in sea water and has been found in nearly every pelagic marine bacterioplankton community studied by these methods2. The SAR11 clade represents a pervasive problem in microbiology: despite its ubiquity, it has defied cultivation efforts. Genetic evidence suggests that diverse uncultivated microbial taxa dominate most natural ecosystems3,4,5, which has prompted widespread efforts to elucidate the geochemical activities of these organisms without the benefit of cultures for study6,7. Here we report the isolation of representatives of the SAR11 clade. Eighteen cultures were initially obtained by means of high-throughput procedures for isolating cell cultures through the dilution of natural microbial communities into very low nutrient media. Eleven of these cultures have been successfully passaged and cryopreserved for future study. The volume of these cells, about 0.01 µm3, places them among the smallest free-living cells in culture.

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Figure 1: Photomicrographs of a culture of SAR11 clade isolate HTCC1062.
Figure 2: Phylogenetic relationships between strain HTCC1062 and representatives of the SAR11 clade and α-Proteobacteria inferred from 16S rRNA gene sequence comparisons.
Figure 3: Growth of strain HTCC1062 in Oregon coast seawater media.


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We thank R. Morris and C. Alexander for technical assistance; A. Soeldner and M. Nesson for electron microscopy expertise; W. Peterson, L. Feinberg and the US GLOBEC Program for CTD data; and the crew of the RV Elakha. This research was supported by Diversa Corporation and the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Stephen J. Giovannoni.

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Rappé, M., Connon, S., Vergin, K. et al. Cultivation of the ubiquitous SAR11 marine bacterioplankton clade. Nature 418, 630–633 (2002).

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