Most microbial richness at any given time tends to be represented by low-abundance (rare) taxa, which are collectively referred to as the “rare biosphere”. Here we review works on the rare biosphere using high-throughput sequencing (HTS), with a particular focus on unicellular eukaryotes or protists. Evidence thus far indicates that the rare biosphere encompasses dormant as well as metabolically active microbes that could potentially play key roles in ecosystem functioning. Rare microbes appear to have biogeography, and sometimes the observed patterns can be similar to what is observed among abundant taxa, suggesting similar community-structuring mechanisms. There is limited evidence indicating that the rare biosphere contains taxa that are phylogenetically distantly related to abundant counterparts; therefore, the rare biosphere may act as a reservoir of deep-branching phylogenetic diversity. The potential role of the rare biosphere as a bank of redundant functions that can help to maintain continuous ecosystem function following oscillations in taxonomic abundances is hypothesized as its main ecological role. Future studies focusing on rare microbes are crucial for advancing our knowledge of microbial ecology and evolution and unveiling their links with ecosystem function.
Copyright © 2015 Institut Pasteur. Published by Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.