Protists have fascinated microbiologists since their discovery nearly 350 years ago. These single-celled, eukaryotic species span an incredible range of sizes, forms, and functions and, despite their generally diminutive size, constitute much of the genetic diversity within the domain Eukarya. Protists in marine ecosystems play fundamental ecological roles as primary producers, consumers, decomposers, and trophic links in aquatic food webs. Much of our knowledge regarding the diversity and ecological activities of these species has been obtained during the past half century, and only within the past few decades have hypotheses depicting the evolutionary relationships among the major clades of protists attained some degree of consensus. This recent progress is attributable to the development of genetic approaches, which have revealed an unexpectedly large diversity of protists, including cryptic species and previously undescribed clades of protists. New genetic tools now exist for identifying protistan species of interest and for reexamining long-standing debates regarding the biogeography of protists. Studies of protistan diversity provide insight regarding how species richness and community composition contribute to ecosystem function. These activities support the development of predictive models that describe how microbial communities will respond to natural or anthropogenically mediated changes in environmental conditions.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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