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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2004 Dec;68(4):686-91.

Status of the microbial census.

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Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1630 Linden Dr., Madison, WI 53706, USA.


Over the past 20 years, more than 78,000 16S rRNA gene sequences have been deposited in GenBank and the Ribosomal Database Project, making the 16S rRNA gene the most widely studied gene for reconstructing bacterial phylogeny. While there is a general appreciation that these sequences are largely unique and derived from diverse species of bacteria, there has not been a quantitative attempt to describe the extent of sequencing efforts to date. We constructed rarefaction curves for each bacterial phylum and for the entire bacterial domain to assess the current state of sampling and the relative taxonomic richness of each phylum. This analysis quantifies the general sense among microbiologists that we are a long way from a complete census of the bacteria on Earth. Moreover, the analysis indicates that current sampling strategies might not be the most effective ones to describe novel diversity because there remain numerous phyla that are globally distributed yet poorly sampled. Based on the current level of sampling, it is not possible to estimate the total number of bacterial species on Earth, but the minimum species richness is 35,498. Considering previous global species richness estimates of 10(7) to 10(9), we are certain that this estimate will increase with additional sequencing efforts. The data support previous calls for extensive surveys of multiple chemically disparate environments and of specific phylogenetic groups to advance the census most rapidly.

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