Analyses of small subunit ribosomal RNA genes (SSU rDNAs) have significantly influenced our understanding of the composition of aquatic microbial assemblages. Unfortunately, SSU rDNA sequences often do not have sufficient resolving power to differentiate closely related species. To address this general problem for uncultivated bacterioplankton taxa, we analysed and compared sequences of polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-generated and bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC)-derived clones that contained most of the SSU rDNAs, the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) and the large subunit ribosomal RNA gene (LSU rDNA). The phylogenetic representation in the rRNA operon PCR library was similar to that reported previously in coastal bacterioplankton SSU rDNA libraries. We observed good concordance between the phylogenetic relationships among coastal bacterioplankton inferred from SSU or LSU rDNA sequences. ITS sequences confirmed the close intragroup relationships among members of the SAR11, SAR116 and SAR86 clades that were predicted by SSU and LSU rDNA sequence analyses. We also found strong support for homologous recombination between the ITS regions of operons from the SAR11 clade.