Microbial ecology has focused much on causes of between-site variation in community composition. By analysing five data-sets each of aquatic bacteria and phytoplankton, we demonstrated that microbial communities show a large degree of similarity in community composition and that abundant taxa were widespread, a typical pattern for many metazoan metacommunities. The regional abundance of taxa explained on average 85 and 41% of variation in detection frequency and 58 and 31% of variation in local abundances for bacteria and phytoplankton, respectively. However, regional abundance explained less variation in local abundances with increasing environmental variation between sites within data-sets. These findings indicate that the studies of microbial assemblages need to consider similarities between communities to better understand the processes underlying the assembly of microbial communities. Finally, we propose that the degree of regional invariance can be linked to the evolution of microbes and the variation in ecosystem functions performed by microbial communities. Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 118-127.