During the past decades, tremendous advances have been made in the possibilities to study the diversity of microbial communities in the environment. The development of methods to study these communities on the basis of 16S rRNA gene sequences analysis was a first step
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During the past decades, tremendous advances have been made in the possibilities to study the diversity of microbial communities in the environment. The development of methods to study these communities on the basis of 16S rRNA gene sequences analysis was a first step into the molecular analysis of environmental communities and the study of biodiversity in natural habitats. A new dimension in this field was reached with the introduction of functional genes of ecological importance and the establishment of genetic tools to study the diversity of functional microbial groups and their responses to environmental factors. Functional gene approaches are excellent tools to study the diversity of a particular function and to demonstrate changes in the composition of prokaryote communities contributing to this function. The phylogeny of many functional genes largely correlates with that of the 16S rRNA gene, and microbial species may be identified on the basis of functional gene sequences. Functional genes are perfectly suited to link culture-based microbiological work with environmental molecular genetic studies. In this review, the development of functional gene studies in environmental microbiology is highlighted with examples of genes relevant for important ecophysiological functions. Examples are presented for bacterial photosynthesis and two types of anoxygenic phototrophic bacteria, with genes of the Fenna-Matthews-Olson-protein (fmoA
) as target for the green sulfur bacteria and of two reaction center proteins (pufLM
) for the phototrophic purple bacteria, with genes of adenosine-5′phosphosulfate (APS) reductase (aprA
), sulfate thioesterase (soxB
) and dissimilatory sulfite reductase (dsrAB
) for sulfur oxidizing and sulfate reducing bacteria, with genes of ammonia monooxygenase (amoA
) for nitrifying/ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, with genes of particulate nitrate reductase and nitrite reductases (narH/G, nirS, nirK
) for denitrifying bacteria and with genes of methane monooxygenase (pmoA
) for methane oxidizing bacteria.