Aerobic, anoxygenic, phototrophic bacteria containing bacteriochlorophyll a (Bchla) require oxygen for both growth and Bchla synthesis. Recent reports suggest that these bacteria are widely distributed in marine plankton, and that they may account for up to 5% of surface ocean photosynthetic electron transport and 11% of the total microbial community. Known planktonic anoxygenic phototrophs belong to only a few restricted groups within the Proteobacteria α-subclass. Here we report genomic analyses of the photosynthetic gene content and operon organization in naturally occurring marine bacteria. These photosynthetic gene clusters included some that most closely resembled those of Proteobacteria from the β-subclass, which have never before been observed in marine environments. Furthermore, these photosynthetic genes were broadly distributed in marine plankton, and actively expressed in neritic bacterioplankton assemblages, indicating that the newly identified phototrophs were photosynthetically competent. Our data demonstrate that planktonic bacterial assemblages are not simply composed of one uniform, widespread class of anoxygenic phototrophs, as previously proposed; rather, these assemblages contain multiple, distantly related, photosynthetically active bacterial groups, including some unrelated to known and cultivated types.
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