The in situ physiology of the filamentous sulphur bacterium Thiothrix spp. was investigated in an industrial wastewater treatment plant with severe bulking problems as a result of overgrowth of Thiothrix. Identification and enumeration using fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) with species-specific 16S and 23S rRNA probes revealed that 5-10% of the bacteria in the activated sludge were Thiothrix spp. By using a combination of FISH and microautoradiography it was possible to study the in situ physiology of probe-defined Thiothrix filaments under different environmental conditions. The Thiothrix filaments were very versatile and showed incorporation of radiolabelled acetate and/or bicarbonate under heterotrophic, mixotrophic and chemolithoautotrophic conditions. The Thiothrix filaments were active under anaerobic conditions (with or without nitrate) in which intracellular sulphur globules were formed from thiosulphate and acetate was taken up. Thiothrix-specific substrate uptake rates and growth rates in activated sludge samples were determined under different conditions. Doubling times of 6-9 h under mixotrophic conditions and 15-30 h under autotrophic conditions were estimated. The key properties that Thiothrix might be employing to outcompete other microorganisms in activated sludge were probably related to the mixotrophic growth potential with strong stimulation of acetate uptake by thiosulphate, as well as stimulation of bicarbonate incorporation by acetate in the presence of thiosulphate.