A typical marine bacterial cell in coastal seawater contains only ∼200 molecules of mRNA, each of which lasts only a few minutes before being degraded. Such a surprisingly small and dynamic cellular mRNA reservoir has important implications for understanding the bacterium's responses to environmental signals, as well as for our ability to measure those responses. In this perspective, we review the available data on transcript dynamics in environmental bacteria, and then consider the consequences of a small and transient mRNA inventory for functional metagenomic studies of microbial communities.
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