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Summary

It has been suggested that the distribution of microorganisms should be cosmopolitan because of their enormous capacity for dispersal. However, recent studies have revealed that geographically isolated microbial populations do exist. Geographic distance as a barrier to dispersal is most often invoked to explain these distributions. Here we show that unique and diverse sequences of the bacterial genus Sulfurihydrogenibium exist in Yellowstone thermal springs, indicating that these sites are geographically isolated. Although there was no correlation with geographic distance or the associated geochemistry of the springs, there was a strong historical signal. We found that the Yellowstone calderas, remnants of prehistoric volcanic eruptions, delineate biogeographical provinces for the Sulfurihydrogenibium within Yellowstone (χ2: 9.7, P = 0.002). The pattern of distribution that we have detected suggests that major geological events in the past 2 million years explain more of the variation in sequence diversity in this system than do contemporary factors such as habitat or geographic distance. These findings highlight the importance of historical legacies in determining contemporary microbial distributions and suggest that the same factors that determine the biogeography of macroorganisms are also evident among bacteria.