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Annu Rev Microbiol. 2003;57:369-94.

The uncultured microbial majority.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA.


Since the delineation of 12 bacterial phyla by comparative phylogenetic analyses of 16S ribosomal RNA in 1987 knowledge of microbial diversity has expanded dramatically owing to the sequencing of ribosomal RNA genes cloned from environmental DNA. Currently, only 26 of the approximately 52 identifiable major lineages, or phyla, within the domain Bacteria have cultivated representatives. Evidence from field studies indicates that many of the uncultivated phyla are found in diverse habitats, and some are extraordinarily abundant. In some important environments, including seawater, freshwater, and soil, many biologically and geochemically important organisms are at best only remotely related to any strain that has been characterized by phenotype or by genome sequencing. Genome sequence information that would allow ribosomal RNA gene trees to be related to broader patterns in microbial genome evolution is scant, and therefore microbial diversity remains largely unexplored territory.

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