The extent to which cultured strains represent the genetic diversity of a population of microorganisms is poorly understood. Because they do not require culturing, metagenomic approaches have the potential to reveal the genetic diversity of the microbes actually present in an environment. From coastal California seawater, a complex and diverse environment, the marine cyanobacteria of the genus Synechococcus were enriched by flow cytometry-based sorting and the population metagenome was analysed with 454 sequencing technology. The sequence data were compared with model Synechococcus genomes, including those of two coastal strains, one isolated from the same and one from a very similar environment. The natural population metagenome had high sequence identity to most genes from the coastal model strains but diverged greatly from these genomes in multiple regions of atypical trinucleotide content that encoded diverse functions. These results can be explained by extensive horizontal gene transfer presumably with large differences in horizontally transferred genetic material between different strains. Some assembled contigs showed the presence of novel open reading frames not found in the model genomes, but these could not yet be unambiguously assigned to a Synechococcus clade. At least three distinct mobile DNA elements (plasmids) not found in model strain genomes were detected in the assembled contigs, suggesting for the first time their likely importance in marine cyanobacterial populations and possible role in horizontal gene transfer.