Because of their tiny size (0.2 to 2 microns), oceanic picophytoplanktonic cells (either cultured strains or natural communities) are difficult to identify, and some basic questions concerning their taxonomy, physiology, and ecology are still largely unanswered. The present study was designed to test the suitability of in situ hybridization with rRNA fluorescent probes detected by flow cytometry for the identification of small photosynthetic eukaryotes. Oligonucleotide probes targeted against regions of the 18S rRNAs of Chlorophyta lineage (CHLO probe) and of non-Chlorophyta (NCHLO probe) algal species were designed. The CHLO and NCHLO probes, which differed by a single nucleotide, allowed discrimination of chlorophyte from nonchlorophyte cultured strains. The sensitivity of each probe was dependent upon the size of the cells and upon their growth stage. The mean fluorescence was 8 to 80 times higher for specifically labeled than for nonspecifically labeled cells in exponential growth phase, but it decreased sharply in stationary phase. Such taxon-specific probes should increase the applicability of flow cytometry for the rapid identification of cultured pico- and nanoplanktonic strains, especially those that lack taxonomically useful morphological features
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