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High proportions of bacteria are culturable across major biomes

The ISME Journal (2019) | Download Citation


The paradigm that only 1% of microbes are culturable has had a profound impact on our understanding of microbial ecology and is still a major motivation for mostly using molecular tools to characterize microbial communities. However, this point is often expressed vaguely, suggesting that some scientists have different interpretations of the paradigm. In addition, there have been substantial advances in cultivation techniques suggesting that this paradigm may no longer be correct. To quantify bacterial culturability across six major biomes, I found that the median 16S rRNA similarity of bacteria to known cultured relatives was 97.3 ± 2.3% (s.d.). Furthermore, 52.0 ± 24% of sequences and 34.9 ± 23% of taxa (defined as >97% similar) had a closely related cultured relative. Thus, many cells and taxa across environments are culturable with known techniques, suggesting that the 1% paradigm is no longer correct.

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I would like to thank Alyse Larkin, Sydney Glassman, and Jennifer Martiny for many helpful comments and acknowledge support for this work from NSF (OCE-1559002, OCE-1848576, and DEB-1457160) and the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), under award number (DE-SC0016410).

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  1. Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine, CA, 92697, USA

    • Adam C. Martiny
  2. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, CA, 92697, USA

    • Adam C. Martiny


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Correspondence to Adam C. Martiny.

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