Photosynthetic pico- and nanoplankton dominate phytoplankton biomass and primary production in the oligotrophic open ocean. Species composition, community structure, and dynamics of the eukaryotic components of these size classes are poorly known primarily because of the difficulties associated with their preservation and identification. Molecular techniques utilizing 18S rRNA sequences offer a number of new and rapid means of identifying the picoplankton. From the available 18S rRNA sequence data for the algae, we designed new group-specific oligonucleotide probes for the division Chlorophyta, the division Haptophyta, and the class Pelagophyceae (division Heterokonta). Dot blot hybridization with polymerase chain reaction amplified target rDNA and whole-cell hybridization assays with fluorescence microscopy and flow cytometry were used to demonstrate probe specificity. Hybridization results with representatives from seven algal classes supported the phylogenetic affinities of the cells. Such group- or taxon-specific probes will be useful in examining community structure, for identifying new algal isolates, and for in situ detection of these three groups, which are thought to be the dominant algal taxa in the oligotrophic regions of the ocean.
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