BACKGROUND: Deep hypersaline anoxic basins (DHABs) are isolated habitats at the bottom of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which originate from the ancient dissolution of Messinian evaporites. The different basins have recruited their original biota from the same source, but their geological evolution eventually constituted sharp environmental barriers, restricting genetic exchange between the individual basins. Therefore, DHABs are unique model systems to assess the effect of geological events and environmental conditions on the evolution and diversification of protistan plankton. Here, we examine evidence for isolated evolution of unicellular eukaryote protistan plankton communities driven by geological separation and environmental selection. We specifically focused on ciliated protists as a major component of protistan DHAB plankton by pyrosequencing the hypervariable V4 fragment of the small subunit ribosomal RNA. Geospatial distributions and responses of marine ciliates to differential hydrochemistries suggest strong physical and chemical barriers to dispersal that influence the evolution of this plankton group. RESULTS: Ciliate communities in the brines of four investigated DHABs are distinctively different from ciliate communities in the interfaces (haloclines) immediately above the brines. While the interface ciliate communities from different sites are relatively similar to each other, the brine ciliate communities are significantly different between sites. We found no distance-decay relationship, and canonical correspondence analyses identified oxygen and sodium as most important hydrochemical parameters explaining the partitioning of diversity between interface and brine ciliate communities. However, none of the analyzed hydrochemical parameters explained the significant differences between brine ciliate communities in different basins. CONCLUSIONS: Our data indicate a frequent genetic exchange in the deep-sea water above the brines. The "isolated island character" of the different brines, that resulted from geological events and contemporary environmental conditions, create selective pressures driving evolutionary processes, and with time, lead to speciation and shape protistan community composition. We conclude that community assembly in DHABs is a mixture of isolated evolution (as evidenced by small changes in V4 primary structure in some taxa) and species sorting (as indicated by the regional absence/presence of individual taxon groups on high levels in taxonomic hierarchy).