Population and community level approaches for analysing microbial diversity in natural environments


Lise Øvreås E-mail:


The enormous diversity available at the microbial level is just beginning to be realized. The richness of diversity amongst the bacteria that have been described so far is between 2 and 3000, whereas estimates indicates that millions of microorganisms still remains to be discovered. Microbiologists have realized that there are at least a dozen major evolutionary groups of the microbial life forms on earth (bacteria, fungi, algae and protozoa) that are even more diverse than the better known animal and plant kingdom. Indeed, we can state that microorganisms dominate the tree of life. Microorganisms have inhabited Earth for more than 3.7 billion years, whereas plants and animals have evolved rather recently in Earth’s history. Possible reports of evidence for microbial life on Mars is also consistent with the concept that microorganisms precede plants and animals on Earth. The applications of molecular-phylogenetic techniques have provided the tools for studying natural microbial communities, including those that we are not able to grow in the laboratory. The utilization of these techniques has resulted in the discovery of many new evolutionary lineages, some of them only distantly related to known organisms. Here I discuss some environmental factors controlling bacterial diversity in different environments and the utility of modern methods developed for describing this diversity.