A Citrobacter sp. accumulated uranyl ion (UO2(2+)) via precipitation with phosphate ligand liberated by phosphatase activity. The onset and rate of uranyl phosphate deposition were promoted by NH4(+), forming NH(4)UO(2)PO(4), which has a lower solubility product than NaUO(2)PO(4). This acceleration decoupled the rate-limiting chemical crystallization process from the biochemical phosphate ligand generation. This provided a novel approach to monitor the cell-surface-associated changes using atomic-force microscopy in conjunction with transmission electron microscopy and electron-probe X-ray microanalysis, to visualize deposition of uranyl phosphate at the cell surface. Analysis of extracted surface materials by (31)P NMR spectroscopy showed phosphorus resonances at chemical shifts of 0.3 and 2.0 p.p.m., consistent with monophosphate groups of the lipid A backbone of the lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Addition of fUO2(2+) to the extract gave a yellow precipitate which contained uranyl phosphate, while addition of Cd(2+) gave a chemical shift of both resonances to a single new resonance at 3 p.p.m. Acid-phosphatase-mediated crystal growth exocellularly was suggested by the presence of acid phosphatase, localized by immunogold labelling, on the outer membrane and on material exuded from the cells. Metal deposition is proposed to occur via an initial nucleation with phosphate groups localized within the LPS, shown by other workers to be produced exocellularly in association with phosphatase. The crystals are further consolidated with additional, enzymically generated phosphate in close juxtaposition, giving high loads of LPS-bound uranyl phosphate without loss of activity and distinguishing this from simple biosorption, or periplasmic or cellular metal accumulation mechanisms. Accumulation of 'tethered' metal phosphate within the LPS is suggested to prevent fouling of the cell surface by the accumulated precipitate and localization of phosphatase exocellularly is consistent with its possible functions in homeostatis and metal resistance.