Chitin, a carbohydrate polymer composed of alternating beta-1, 4-linked N-acetylglucosamine residues is the second most abundant organic compound in nature. In the aquatic biosphere alone, it is estimated that more than 10(11) metric tons of chitin are produced annually. If this enormous quantity of insoluble carbon and nitrogen was not converted to biologically useful material, the oceans would be depleted of these elements in a matter of decades. In fact, marine sediments contain only traces of chitin, and the turnover of the polysaccharide is attributed primarily to marine bacteria, but the overall process involves many steps, most of which remain to be elucidated. Marine bacteria possess complex signal transduction systems for: (1) finding chitin, (2) adhering to chitinaceous substrata, (3) degrading the chitin to oligosaccharides, (4) transporting the oligosaccharides to the cytoplasm, and (5) catabolizing the transport products to fructose-6-P, acetate and NH(3). The proteins and enzymes are located extracellularly, in the cell envelope, the periplasmic space, the inner membrane and the cytoplasm. In addition to these levels of complexity, the various components of these systems appear to be carefully coordinated by intricate regulatory mechanisms.