With the increased use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture, many densely populated countries face environmental problems associated with high ammonia emissions. The process of anaerobic ammonia oxidation ('anammox') is one of the most innovative technological advances in the removal of ammonia nitrogen from waste water. This new process combines ammonia and nitrite directly into dinitrogen gas. Until now, bacteria capable of anaerobically oxidizing ammonia had never been found and were known as "lithotrophs missing from nature". Here we report the discovery of this missing lithotroph and its identification as a new, autotrophic member of the order Planctomycetales, one of the major distinct divisions of the Bacteria. The new planctomycete grows extremely slowly, dividing only once every two weeks. At present, it cannot be cultivated by conventional microbiological techniques. The identification of this bacterium as the one responsible for anaerobic oxidation of ammonia makes an important contribution to the problem of unculturability.