The extent of protist diversity: insights from molecular ecology of freshwater eukaryotes

Jan Šlapeta, David Moreira, Purificación López-García

Abstract

Classical studies on protist diversity of freshwater environments worldwide have led to the idea that most species of microbial eukaryotes are known. One exemplary case would be constituted by the ciliates, which have been claimed to encompass a few thousands of ubiquitous species, most of them already described. Recently, molecular methods have revealed an unsuspected protist diversity, especially in oceanic as well as some extreme environments, suggesting the occurrence of a hidden diversity of eukaryotic lineages. In order to test if this holds also for freshwater environments, we have carried out a molecular survey of small subunit ribosomal RNA genes in water and sediment samples of two ponds, one oxic and another suboxic, from the same geographic area. Our results show that protist diversity is very high. The majority of phylotypes affiliated within a few well established eukaryotic kingdoms or phyla, including alveolates, cryptophytes, heterokonts, Cercozoa, Centroheliozoa and haptophytes, although a few sequences did not display a clear taxonomic affiliation. The diversity of sequences within groups was very large, particularly that of ciliates, and a number of them were very divergent from known species, which could define new intra-phylum groups. This suggests that, contrary to current ideas, the diversity of freshwater protists is far from being completely described.

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