Sequence variation among 22 isolates representing a global distribution of the prymnesiophyte genus Phaeocystis has been compared using nuclear-encoded 18S rRNA genes and two non-coding regions: the ribosomal DNA internal transcribed spacer 1 (ITS1) separating the 18S rRNA and 5·8S rRNA genes and the plastid ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RUBISCO) spacer flanked by short stretches of the adjacent large and small subunits (rbcL and rbcS). 18S rRNA can only resolve major species complexes. The analysis suggests that an undescribed unicellular Phaeocystis sp. (isolate PLY 559) is a sister taxon to the Mediterranean unicellular Phaeocystis jahnii; this clade branched prior to the divergence of all other Phaeocystis species, including the colonial ones. Little divergence was seen among the multiple isolates sequenced from each colonial species complex. RUBISCO spacer regions are even more highly conserved among closely related colonial Phaeocystis species and are identical in Phaeocystis antarctica, Phaeocystis pouchetii and two warm-temperate strains of Phaeocystis globosa, with a single base substitution in two cold-temperate strains of P. globosa. The RUBISCO spacer sequences from two predominantly unicellular Phaeocystis isolates from the Mediterranean Sea and PLY 559 were clearly different from other Phaeocystis strains. In contrast, ITS1 exhibited substantial inter- and intraspecific sequence divergence and showed more resolution among the taxa. Distinctly different copies of the ITS1 region were found in P. globosa, even among cloned DNA from a single strain, suggesting that it is a species complex and making this region unsuitable for phylogenetic analysis in this species. However, among nine P. antarctica strains, four ITS1 haplotypes could be separated. Using the branching order in the ITS1 tree we have attempted to trace the biogeographic history of the dispersal of strains in Antarctic coastal waters.