Prokaryote diversity and taxonomy: current status and future challenges

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 Apr 29;359(1444):623-38. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2003.1458.


The prokaryotes are by far the most abundant organisms inhabiting planet Earth. They are also by far the most diverse, both metabolically and phylogenetically; they encompass the Bacteria and the Archaea, two out of the three major divisions of living organisms. The current prokaryote species classification is based on a combination of genomic and phenotypic properties. The recommended cut-off value of 70% DNA-DNA similarity to delineate species signifies an extremely broad species definition for the prokaryotes compared with the higher eukaryotes. The number of validly named species of prokaryotes is currently slightly more than 6200. However, on the basis of small-subunit rDNA characterization of whole communities and other approaches, the more exact number of species present can be inferred to be at least two orders of magnitude larger. Classic culturing methods based on colony formation on agar are generally unsatisfactory for the recovery of bacteria from the environment. Many of the most abundant prokaryotes in nature have not yet been brought into culture. Some of these may thrive by means of as yet unknown modes of energy generation. Several novel methods have recently enabled the isolation of some interesting organisms of environmental significance. A better coverage of the prokaryote diversity on Earth depends on such innovative approaches, combined with appropriate funding.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / genetics*
  • Archaea / growth & development
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / growth & development
  • Biodiversity*
  • Classification*
  • Demography
  • Phylogeny*
  • Species Specificity