The alpha-proteobacterial lineage that contains SAR11 and related ribosomal RNA gene clones was among the first groups of organisms to be identified when cultivation-independent approaches based on rRNA gene cloning and sequencing were applied to survey microbial diversity in natural ecosystems. This group accounts for 26% of all ribosomal RNA genes that have been identified in sea water and has been found in nearly every pelagic marine bacterioplankton community studied by these methods. The SAR11 clade represents a pervasive problem in microbiology: despite its ubiquity, it has defied cultivation efforts. Genetic evidence suggests that diverse uncultivated microbial taxa dominate most natural ecosystems, which has prompted widespread efforts to elucidate the geochemical activities of these organisms without the benefit of cultures for study. Here we report the isolation of representatives of the SAR11 clade. Eighteen cultures were initially obtained by means of high-throughput procedures for isolating cell cultures through the dilution of natural microbial communities into very low nutrient media. Eleven of these cultures have been successfully passaged and cryopreserved for future study. The volume of these cells, about 0.01 micro m(3), places them among the smallest free-living cells in culture.