We investigated the effect of temperature on the activity of soil ammonia oxidizers caused by changes in the availability of ammonium and in the microbial community structure. Both short (5 days) and long (6.5, 16 and 20 weeks) incubation of an agricultural soil resulted in a decrease in ammonium concentration that was more pronounced at temperatures between 10 and 25 degrees C than at either 4 degrees C or 30-37 degrees C. Consistently, potential nitrification was higher between 10 and 25 degrees C than at either 4 degrees C or 37 degrees C. However, as long as ammonium was not limiting, release rates of N2O increased monotonously between 4 and 37 degrees C after short-term temperature adaptation, with nitrification accounting for about 35-50% of the N2O production between 4 and 25 degrees C. In order to see whether temperature may also affect the community structure of ammonia oxidizers, we studied moist soil during long incubation at low and high concentrations of commercial fertilizer. The soil was also incubated in buffered (pH 7) slurry amended with urea. Communities of ammonia oxidizers were assayed by denaturant gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) of the amoA gene coding for the alpha subunit of ammonia monooxygenase. We found that a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) system using a non-degenerated reverse primer (amoAR1) gave the best results. Community shifts occurred in all soil treatments after 16 weeks of incubation. The community shifts were obviously influenced by the different fertilizer treatments, indicating that ammonium was a selective factor for different ammonia oxidizer populations. Temperature was also a selective factor, in particular as community shifts were also observed in the soil slurries, in which ammonium concentrations and pH were better controlled. Cloning and sequencing of selected DGGE bands indicated that amoA sequences belonging to Nitrosospira cluster 1 were dominant at low temperatures (4-10 degrees C), but were absent after long incubation at low fertilizer treatment. Sequences of Nitrosospira cluster 9 could only be detected at low ammonium concentrations, whereas those of Nitrosospira cluster 3 were found at most ammonium concentrations and temperatures, although individual clones of this cluster exhibited trends with temperature. Obviously, ammonia oxidizers are able to adapt to soil conditions by changes in the community structure if sufficient time (several weeks) is available.