Protistan diversity was characterized at three locations in the western North Atlantic (Sargasso Sea and Gulf Stream) by sequencing 18S rRNA genes in samples from euphotic (< or = 125 m) and bathypelagic depths (2500 m). A total of 923 partial-length protistan sequences were analysed, revealing 324 distinct operational taxonomic units (OTUs) determined by an automated OTU-calling program set to 95% sequence similarity. Most OTUs were comprised of only one or two sequences suggesting a large but rare pool of protistan diversity. Many OTUs from both depth strata were associated with recently described novel alveolate and stramenopile lineages while many OTUs from the bathypelagic were affiliated with Acantharea, Polycystinea and Euglenozoa and were not observed in euphotic zone libraries. Protistan assemblages from the euphotic zone and the deep sea were largely composed of distinct OTUs; only 28 of the 324 protistan OTUs were detected in both shallow and deep sea clone libraries. The diversity of protistan assemblages in the deep sea was distinctly lower than the diversity of euphotic zone assemblages. Protistan assemblages from the Gulf Stream were the most diverse for either depth strata. Overall, protistan assemblages from different stations but comparable depths were more similar than the assemblages from different depths at the same station. These data suggest that particular groups of protistan OTUs formed distinct 'shallow' and 'deep-sea' assemblages across widely spaced oceanic locales.