Molecular approaches that target the total DNA pool recovered from permanently anoxic marine ecosystems have revealed an extraordinary diversity of prokaryotes and unicellular eukaryotes. However, the presence of gene sequences contained within the extracellular DNA pool is still largely neglected. We have investigated the preservation, origin and genetic imprint of extracellular DNA recovered from permanently anoxic deep-sea sediments of the Black Sea. Despite high DNase activities, huge amounts of total extracellular DNA were found in both the surface and subsurface sediment layers, suggesting reduced availability of the extracellular DNA pool to nuclease degradation. The reduced degradation of the total extracellular DNA was confirmed by its low decay rate and the high accumulation in the deeper sediment layers. The copy numbers of 16S and 18S rDNA contained within the extracellular DNA pool in both the surface and subsurface sediment layers was very high, indicating that permanently anoxic sediments of the deep Black Sea are hot spots of preserved extracellular gene sequences. The extracellular DNA recovered from these sediment layers also contained highly diversified 18S rDNA sequences. These were not only representative of the major protistan lineages, but also of new very divergent lineages, branching as independent clades at the base of the tree. Our findings indicate that the extracellular DNA pool is a major archive of present/past eukaryotic gene sequences, and they highlight the importance of integrating molecular cell-oriented approaches with molecular analyses of the extracellular DNA pool, for a better assessment of microbial diversity and temporal changes in marine benthic ecosystems.
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