Biodiversity estimates based on ribosomal operon sequence diversity rely on the premise that a sequence is characteristic of a single specific taxon or operational taxonomic unit (OTU). Here, we have studied the sequence diversity of 14 ribosomal RNA operons (rrn) contained in the genomes of two isolates (five operons in each genome) and four metagenomic fosmids, all from the same seawater sample. Complete sequencing of the isolate genomes and the fosmids establish that they represent strains of the same species, Alteromonas macleodii, with average nucleotide identity (ANI) values >97 %. Nonetheless, we observed high levels of intragenomic heterogeneity (i.e., variability between operons of a single genome) affecting multiple regions of the 16S and 23S rRNA genes as well as the internally transcribed spacer 1 (ITS-1) region. Furthermore, the ribosomal operons exhibited intergenomic heterogeneity (i.e., variability between operons located in separate genomes) in each of these regions, compounding the variability. Our data reveal the extensive heterogeneity observed in natural populations of A. macleodii at a single point in time and support the idea that distinct lineages of A. macleodii exist in the deep Mediterranean. These findings highlight the potential of rRNA fingerprinting methods to misrepresent species diversity while simultaneously failing to recognize the ecological significance of individual strains.