Members of the phylum Bacteroidetes are among the most abundant microbes in coastal marine waters, but it is unclear to which extent the diversity within this phylum is covered by currently available 16S rRNA gene sequence information. We, thus, obtained a comprehensive collection of sequence types affiliated with Bacteroidetes in coastal North Sea surface waters and we compared this local diversity with the available sequences of marine planktonic and other aquatic Bacteroidetes. Approximately 15% of > 600 clones from two libraries (August 2000, June 2001) were related to Bacteroidetes, specifically to the Flavobacteria. Local diversity appeared to be almost exhaustively sampled. However, the diversity of the two libraries virtually did not overlap, indicating a pronounced temporal variability of the planktonic Flavobacteria assemblage. The majority of sequence types represented novel phylogenetic lineages, adding 6-7% to the currently known genera and species of Bacteroidetes in marine waters. Different diversity estimators suggested that so far only approximately half of the global diversity of planktonic marine Bacteroidetes has been described. The data set moreover indicated that cultivation-independent techniques and isolation approaches have recovered almost equally sized and virtually non-overlapping fractions of the currently known diversity within this phylum. Interestingly, only 15% of genera of Bacteroidetes from various aquatic environments appear to occur in more than one habitat type.