Eukaryotic plankton assemblages in 11 high-mountain lakes located at altitudes of 2,817 to 5,134 m and over a total area of ca. one million square kilometers on the Eastern Tibet Plateau, spanning a salinity gradient from 0.2 (freshwater) to 187.1 g l(-1) (hypersaline), were investigated by cultivation independent methods. Two 18S rRNA gene-based fingerprint approaches, i.e., the terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) with subsequent band sequencing were applied. Samples of the same lake type (e.g., freshwater) generally shared more of the same bands or T-RFs than samples of different types (e.g., freshwater versus saline). However, a certain number of bands or T-RFs among the samples within each lake were distinct, indicating the potential presence of significant genetic diversity within each lake. PCA indicated that the most significant environmental gradient among the investigated lakes was salinity. The observed molecular profiles could be further explained (17-24%) by ion percentage of chloride, carbonate and bicarbonate, and sulfate, which were also covaried with change of altitude and latitude. Sequence analysis of selected major DGGE bands revealed many sequences (largely protist) that are not related to any known cultures but to uncultured eukaryotic picoplankton and unidentified eukaryotes. One fourth of the retrieved sequences showed < or =97% similarity to the closest sequences in the GenBank. Sequences related to well-known heterotrophic nanoflagellates were not retrieved from the DGGE gels. Several groups of eukaryotic plankton, which were found worldwide and detected in low land lakes, were also detected in habitats located above 4,400 m, suggesting a cosmopolitan distribution of these phylotypes. Collectively, our study suggests that there was a high beta-diversity of eukaryotic plankton assemblages in the investigated Tibetan lakes shaped by multiple geographic and environmental factors.