Eukaryotic versus prokaryotic marine picoplankton ecology


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Marine microorganisms contribute markedly to global biomass and ecosystem function. They include a diverse collection of organisms differing in cell size and in evolutionary history. In particular, microbes within the picoplankton are similar in size but belong to two drastically different cellular plans, the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes. Compared with larger organisms, prokaryotes and picoeukaryotes share ecological features, such as high specific activity, large and constant abundances, and high dispersal potential. Still, there are some aspects where their different cell organization influences their ecological performance. First, prokaryotes have a huge metabolic versatility and are involved in all biogeochemical cycles, whereas picoeukaryotes are metabolically less flexible but can exploit diverse predatory life strategies due to their phagocytic capacity. Second, sexual reproduction is absent in prokaryotes but may be present in picoeukaryotes, thus determining different evolutionary diversification dynamics and making species limits clearer in picoeukaryotes. Finally, it is plausible that picoeukaryotes are less flexible to enter a reversible state of low metabolic activity, thus picoeukaryote assemblages may have fewer rare species and may be less resilient to environmental change. In summary, lumping together pico-sized microbes may be convenient for some ecological studies, but it is also important to keep in mind their differences.