• diatom;
  • Ditylum brightwellii;
  • estuary;
  • genetic diversity;
  • physiology;
  • phytoplankton;
  • population differentiation;
  • selection

Population genetic structure was determined for the planktonic diatom Ditylum brightwellii (West) Grunow in two connected estuaries—Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (WA, USA). Three genetically distinct populations were detected that were characterized by different microsatellite allele distributions and unique alleles. Isolates from the two most genetically diverged populations displayed identical full-length 18S rDNA sequences suggesting that either a single or two recently diverged species were sampled. The extent of genetic differentiation between populations was not correlated with distance between water samples or time between sampling. Instead, distinct populations were associated with different estuaries. In Puget Sound waters, one population was detected three times over the course of 28 months. Cells from this population were likely maintained inside Puget Sound over long periods through water recirculation within the Sound. In Strait of Juan de Fuca waters, two additional populations were detected. Maximum growth rates of Puget Sound isolates were significantly different from Strait of Juan de Fuca isolates, indicating that populations were composed of cells with different physiological capabilities. The genetic and physiological differentiation observed between populations from intermixing estuaries suggested that genetic exchange between populations was restricted through differential selection. Despite the potential for widespread dispersal in planktonic organisms, it appears that populations with distinct genetic and physiological characteristics can be maintained over long time periods through a combination of hydrology and differential selection.