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Autotrophic picoplankton (APP) are distributed worldwide and are ubiquitous in all types of lakes of varying trophic state. APP are major players in carbon production in all aquatic ecosystems, including extreme environments such as cold ice-covered and/or warm tropical lakes and thermal springs. They often form the base of complex microbial food webs, becoming prey for a multitude of protozoan and micro-invertebrate grazers, that effectively channel APP carbon to higher trophic levels including fish. In this review we examine the existing literature on freshwater autotrophic picoplankton, setting recent findings and current ecological issues within an historic framework, and include a description of the occurrence and distribution of both single-cell and colonial APP (picocyanobacteria) in different types of lakes. In this review we place considerable emphasis on methodology and ecology, including sampling, counting, preservation, molecular techniques, measurement of photosynthesis, and include extensive comment on their important role in microbial food webs. The model outlined by Stockner of an increase of APP abundance and biomass and a decrease of its relative importance with the increase of phosphorus concentration in lakes has been widely accepted, and only recently confirmed in marine and freshwater ecosystems. Nevertheless the relationship which drives the APP presence and importance in lakes of differing trophic status appears with considerable variation so we must conclude that the success of APP in oligotrophic lakes worldwide is not a certainty but highly probable.
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