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Am J Bot. 2011 Mar;98(3):439-48. doi: 10.3732/ajb.1000498. Epub 2011 Feb 17.

The generation and maintenance of diversity in microbial communities.

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  • 1Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, UCB 216, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA.


Microorganisms play a central role in the regulation of ecosystem processes, and they comprise the vast majority of species on Earth. With recent developments in molecular methods, it has become tractable to quantify the extent of microbial diversity in natural environments. Here we examine this revolution in our understanding of microbial diversity, and we explore the factors that contribute to the seemingly astounding numbers of microbial taxa found within individual environmental samples. We conducted a meta-analysis of bacterial richness estimates from a variety of ecosystems. Nearly all environments contained hundreds to thousands of bacterial taxa, and richness levels increased with the number of individuals in a sample, a pattern consistent with those reported for nonmicrobial taxa. A cursory comparison might suggest that bacterial richness far exceeds the richness levels typically observed for plant and animal taxa. However, the apparent diversity of bacterial communities is influenced by phylogenetic breadth and allometric scaling issues. When these features are taken into consideration, the levels of microbial diversity may appear less astounding. Although the fields of ecology and biogeography have traditionally ignored microorganisms, there are no longer valid excuses for neglecting microorganisms in surveys of biodiversity. Many of the concepts developed to explain plant and animal diversity patterns can also be applied to microorganisms once we reconcile the scale of our analyses to the scale of the organisms being observed. Furthermore, knowledge from microbial systems may provide insight into the mechanisms that generate and maintain species richness in nonmicrobial systems.

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