Colonic contents were obtained from two human sudden-death victims within 3 h of death. One of the subjects (1) was methanogenic, the other (2) was a non-CH4 producer. Measurements of bacterial fermentation products showed that in both individuals short-chain fatty acids, lactate and ethanol concentrations were highest in the caecum and ascending colon. In contrast, products of protein fermentation, such as ammonia, branched chain fatty acids and phenolic compounds, progressively increased from the right to the left colon, as did the pH of gut contents. In Subject 1, cell population densities of methanogenic bacteria (MB) increased distally through the gut and methanogenic activity was lower in the right (0.78-1.18 mumol CH4 produced/h/g dry wt contents) than in the left colon (1.34 mumol CH4 produced/h/g dry wt contents). Methane production rates did not correlate with MB numbers. Sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) were not found and dissimilatory sulphate reduction was not detected in any region of the colon. Methanogenic bacteria did not occur in subject 2, but high numbers of SRB were present throughout the gut (ca 10(9)/g dry wt contents). Sulphate reduction rates were maximal in the ascending and transverse colons (0.24 and 0.22 mumol 35SO4(2-) reduced/h/g dry wt contents, respectively). Short-chain fatty acid production by caecal contents was up to eight-fold higher than contents from the sigmoid/rectum. These findings demonstrate significant differences in fermentation reactions in different regions of the large gut.