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Small-subunit (SSU) ribosomal DNA (rDNA) gene clusters are phylogenetically related sets of SSU rRNA genes, commonly encountered in genes amplified from natural populations. Genetic variability in gene clusters could result from artifacts (polymerase error or PCR chimera formation), microevolution (variation among rrn copies within strains), or macroevolution (genetic divergence correlated with long-term evolutionary divergence). To better understand gene clusters this study assessed genetic diversity and distribution of a single environmental SSU rDNA gene cluster, the SAR11 cluster. SAR11 cluster genes, from an uncultured group of the alpha subclass of the class Proteobacteria, have been recovered from coastal and midoceanic waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific. We cloned and bidirectionally sequenced 23 new SAR11 cluster 16S rRNA genes, from 80 and 250 m in the Sargasso Sea and from surface coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, and analyzed them with previously published sequences. Two SAR11 genes were obviously PCR chimeras, but the biological (nonchimeric) origins of most subgroups within the cluster were confirmed by independent recovery from separate gene libraries. Using group-specific oligonucleotide probes, we analyzed depth profiles of nucleic acids, targeting both amplified rDNAs and bulk RNAs. Two subgroups within the SAR11 cluster showed different highly depth-specific distributions. We conclude that some of the genetic diversity within the SAR11 gene cluster represents macroevolutionary divergence correlated with niche specialization. Furthermore, we demonstrate the utility for marine microbial ecology of oligonucleotide probes based on gene sequences amplified from natural populations and show that a detailed knowledge of sequence variability may be needed to effectively design these probes.