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SAR11 clade dominates ocean surface bacterioplankton communities


The most abundant class of bacterial ribosomal RNA genes detected in seawater DNA by gene cloning belongs to SAR11—an α-proteobacterial clade1. Other than indications of their prevalence in seawater, little is known about these organisms. Here we report quantitative measurements of the cellular abundance of the SAR11 clade in northwestern Sargasso Sea waters to 3,000 m and in Oregon coastal surface waters. On average, the SAR11 clade accounts for a third of the cells present in surface waters and nearly a fifth of the cells present in the mesopelagic zone. In some regions, members of the SAR11 clade represent as much as 50% of the total surface microbial community and 25% of the subeuphotic microbial community. By extrapolation, we estimate that globally there are 2.4 × 1028 SAR11 cells in the oceans, half of which are located in the euphotic zone. Although the biogeochemical role of the SAR11 clade remains uncertain, these data support the conclusion that this microbial group is among the most successful organisms on Earth.

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Figure 1: Distribution of the SAR11 clade in the world's oceans.
Figure 2: SAR11 fluorescence in situ hybridization image composite.
Figure 3: SAR11 probe counts, bacterial probe counts and direct cell counts (DAPI-staining particles) in the northwestern Sargasso Sea.
Figure 4: Percentages of SAR11 clade 16S rRNA at surface depths and depths ≥200 m.


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We thank R. Parsons, N. Nelson, the BATS scientific team and officers and crew of the RV Weatherbird II for help with collecting and processing samples. This work was supported by grants from Oregon State University, the Murdock Charitable Trust and the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Stephen J. Giovannoni.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Morris, R., Rappé, M., Connon, S. et al. SAR11 clade dominates ocean surface bacterioplankton communities. Nature 420, 806–810 (2002).

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