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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2005 Sep;69(3):440-61.

Fate of heterotrophic microbes in pelagic habitats: focus on populations.

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  • 1Limnological Station, Institute of Plant Biology, Seestrasse 187, CH-8802 Kilchberg, Switzerland. pernthaler@limnol.unizh.ch


Major biogeochemical processes in the water columns of lakes and oceans are related to the activities of heterotrophic microbes, e.g., the mineralization of organic carbon from photosynthesis and allochthonous influx or its transport to the higher trophic levels. During the last 15 years, cultivation-independent molecular techniques have substantially contributed to our understanding of the diversity of the microbial communities in different aquatic systems. In parallel, the complexity of aquatic habitats at a microscale has inspired research on the ecophysiological properties of uncultured microorganisms that thrive in a continuum of dissolved to particulate organic matter. One possibility to link these two aspects is to adopt a"Gleasonian" perspective, i.e., to study aquatic microbial assemblages in situ at the population level rather than looking at microbial community structure, diversity, or function as a whole. This review compiles current knowledge about the role and fate of different populations of heterotrophic picoplankton in marine and inland waters. Specifically, we focus on a growing suite of techniques that link the analysis of bacterial identity with growth, morphology, and various physiological activities at the level of single cells. An overview is given of the potential and limitations of methodological approaches, and factors that might control the population sizes of different microbes in pelagic habitats are discussed.

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