The oceans of the world are nutrient-limited environments that support a dynamic diversity of microbial life. Heterotrophic prokaryotes proliferate in oligotrophic regions and affect nutrient transformation and remineralization thereby impacting directly on the all marine biota. An important challenge in studying the microbial ecology of oligotrophic environments has been the isolation of ecologically important species. This goal has been recognized not only for its relevance in defining the dynamics of community composition, but for enabling physiological studies of competitive species and inferring their impact on the microbial food web. This review describes the successful isolation attempts of the ultramicrobacterium, Sphingopyxis alaskensis (formerly described as Sphingomonas alaskensis) using extinction dilution culturing methods. It then provides a comprehensive perspective of the unique physiological and genetic properties that have been identified that distinguish it from typical copiotrophic species. These properties are described through studies of the growth phase and growth rate control of macromolecular synthesis, stress resistance and global gene expression (proteomics). We also discuss the importance of integrating ecological and physiological approaches for studying microorganisms in marine environments.