In the past, enumeration of sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) by cultivation-based methods generally contradicted measurements of sulphate reduction, suggesting unrealistically high respiration rates per cell. Here, we report evidence that quantification of SRB rRNA by slot-blot hybridization is a valuable tool for a more realistic assessment of SRB abundance in the natural environment. The distribution of SRB was investigated in a coastal marine sediment by hybridization of membrane-immobilized rRNA with oligonucleotide probes. As represented by general probe-target groups, SRB rRNA contributed between 18% and 25% to the prokaryotic rRNA pool. The dominant SRB were related to complete oxidizing genera (Desulphococcus, Desulphosarcina and Desulphobacterium), while Desulphobacter could not be detected. The vertical profile and quantity of rRNA from SRB was compared with sulphate reduction rates (SRR) measured with 35SO4(2-) tracer in whole-core incubations. While SRB abundance was highest near the surface, peaking at around 1.5 cm, measured sulphate reduction rates were lowest in this region. A second peak of SRB rRNA was observed at the transition zone from oxidized to reduced sediment, directly above the sulphate reduction maximum. Cell numbers calculated by converting the relative contribution of SRB rRNA to the percentage of DAPI-stained cells indicated a population size for SRB of 2.4-6.1 x 10(8) cells cm(-3) wet sediment. Cellular sulphate reduction rates calculated on the basis of these estimated cell numbers were between 0.01 and 0.09 fmol SO4(2-) cell(-1) day(-1), which is below the rates that have been determined for pure cultures (0.2-50 fmol SO4(2-) cell(-1) day(-1)) growing exponentially at nearoptimal temperature with a surplus of substrates.