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Heredity, 2008      Genomics, environmental genomics and the issue of microbial species
DM Ward, FM Cohan, D Bhaya, JF Heidelberg, M Kuhl and A Grossman
Heredity, 2008

A microbial species concept is crucial for interpreting the variation detected by genomics and environmental genomics among cultivated microorganisms and within natural microbial populations. Comparative genomic analyses of prokaryotic species as they are presently described and named have led to the provocative idea that prokaryotes may not form species as we think about them for plants and animals. There are good reasons to doubt whether presently recognized prokaryotic species are truly species. To achieve a better understanding of microbial species, we believe it is necessary to (i) re-evaluate traditional approaches in light of evolutionary and ecological theory, (ii) consider that different microbial species may have evolved in different ways and (iii) integrate genomic, metagenomic and genome-wide expression approaches with ecological and evolutionary theory. Here, we outline how we are using genomic methods to (i) identify ecologically distinct populations (ecotypes) predicted by theory to be species-like fundamental units of microbial communities, and (ii) test their species-like character through in situ distribution and gene expression studies. By comparing metagenomic sequences obtained from well-studied hot spring cyanobacterial mats with genomic sequences of two cultivated cyanobacterial ecotypes, closely related to predominant native populations, we can conduct in situ population genetics studies that identify putative ecotypes and functional genes that determine the ecotypes’ ecological distinctness. If individuals within microbial communities are found to be grouped into ecologically distinct, species-like populations, knowing about such populations should guide us to a better understanding of how genomic variation is linked to community function.
Keywords: prokaryotic species; species concepts; environmental genomics; genomics; ecotype; microbial mat

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