What is the extent of prokaryotic diversity?

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Journal Article
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2006, 361 (1475), pp. 2023 - 2037
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The extent of microbial diversity is an intrinsically fascinating subject of profound practical importance. The term 'diversity' may allude to the number of taxa or species richness as well as their relative abundance. There is uncertainty about both, primarily because sample sizes are too small. Non-parametric diversity estimators make gross underestimates if used with small sample sizes on unevenly distributed communities. One can make richness estimates over many scales using small samples by assuming a species/taxa-abundance distribution. However, no one knows what the underlying taxa-abundance distributions are for bacterial communities. Latterly, diversity has been estimated by fitting data from gene clone libraries and extrapolating from this to taxa-abundance curves to estimate richness. However, since sample sizes are small, we cannot be sure that such samples are representative of the community from which they were drawn. It is however possible to formulate, and calibrate, models that predict the diversity of local communities and of samples drawn from that local community. The calibration of such models suggests that migration rates are small and decrease as the community gets larger. The preliminary predictions of the model are qualitatively consistent with the patterns seen in clone libraries in 'real life'. The validation of this model is also confounded by small sample sizes. However, if such models were properly validated, they could form invaluable tools for the prediction of microbial diversity and a basis for the systematic exploration of microbial diversity on the planet. © 2006 The Royal Society.
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