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Prokaryotes: The Unseen Majority

William B. Whitman, David C. Coleman and William J. Wiebe
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Vol. 95, No. 12 (Jun. 9, 1998), pp. 6578-6583
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/44981
Page Count: 6
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Prokaryotes: The Unseen Majority
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Abstract

The number of prokaryotes and the total amount of their cellular carbon on earth are estimated to be 4-6 × 1030 cells and 350-550 Pg of C (1 Pg = 1015 g), respectively. Thus, the total amount of prokaryotic carbon is 60-100% of the estimated total carbon in plants, and inclusion of prokaryotic carbon in global models will almost double estimates of the amount of carbon stored in living organisms. In addition, the earth's prokaryotes contain 85-130 Pg of N and 9-14 Pg of P, or about 10-fold more of these nutrients than do plants, and represent the largest pool of these nutrients in living organisms. Most of the earth's prokaryotes occur in the open ocean, in soil, and in oceanic and terrestrial subsurfaces, where the numbers of cells are 1.2 × 1029, 2.6 × 1029, 3.5 × 1030, and 0.25-2.5 × 1030, respectively. The numbers of heterotrophic prokaryotes in the upper 200 m of the open ocean, the ocean below 200 m, and soil are consistent with average turnover times of 6-25 days, 0.8 yr, and 2.5 yr, respectively. Although subject to a great deal of uncertainty, the estimate for the average turnover time of prokaryotes in the subsurface is on the order of 1-2 × 103 yr. The cellular production rate for all prokaryotes on earth is estimated at 1.7 × 1030 cells/yr and is highest in the open ocean. The large population size and rapid growth of prokaryotes provides an enormous capacity for genetic diversity.

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