Small is the new big: assessing the population structure of microorganisms

Authors

  • ALEEZA C. GERSTEIN,

    1. Department of Zoology and Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre, The University of British Columbia, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4
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  • JEAN-SÉBASTIEN MOORE

    1. Department of Zoology and Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre, The University of British Columbia, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4
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Aleeza C. Gerstein, Fax: (604) 822 2416; E-mail: gerstein@zoology.ubc.ca

Abstract

Microorganisms are a tremendously large and diverse group spanning multiple kingdoms, yet they have been considerably under-studied by ecologists and evolutionary biologists compared to their larger relatives. Although a few microbial species have become the stars of laboratory experiments, relatively few studies have examined microbial species in their natural habitats. As such, the question of whether microbial diversity parallels that of larger bodied species is contentious (Lachance 2004; Fenchel & Finlay 2004). It has been suggested that large population sizes, high dispersal potential and low extinction rates lead to genetically homogeneous populations of microbial species over large geographical scales—arguments that bring to mind discussions about speciation and population structure in the marine environment. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Herrera et al. (2011) add to this debate by examining 91 isolates of the flower-living yeast Metschnikowia gruessii from southeastern Spain. Their AFLP results support both spatial structuring of genetic diversity across the region, as well as microsite-dependent diversifying selection within single flowers. This study adds to a growing body of literature suggesting that although microbes have much larger population sizes and many differ in their principal mode of reproduction (primarily clonal rather than sexual), patterns of genetic diversity and phylogenetic structure for some microbial species may be similar to that of larger species. This study highlights the need for vastly more research that specifically examines biogeographic structure in this under-utilized group of organisms.

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