Microbiologists have been constrained in their efforts to describe the compositions of natural microbial communities using traditional methods. Few microorganisms have sufficiently distinctive morphology to be recognized by microscopy. Culture-dependent methods are biased, as a microorganism can be cultivated only after its physiological niche is perceived and duplicated experimentally. It is therefore widely believed that fewer than 20% of the extant microorganisms have been discovered, and that culture methods are inadequate for studying microbial community composition. In view of the physiological and phylogenetic diversity among microorganisms, speculation that 80% or more of microbes remain undiscovered raises the question of how well we know the Earth's biota and its biochemical potential. We have performed a culture-independent analysis of the composition of a well-studied hot spring microbial community, using a common but distinctive cellular component, 16S ribosomal RNA. Our results confirm speculations about the diversity of uncultured microorganisms it contains.