Microbial communities of ancient Mediterranean sapropels, buried sediment layers of high organic matter, were analyzed by most probable number (MPN) approaches. Mineral media containing different carbon sources in sub-millimolar concentrations were used. MPN numbers were elevated in sapropels and at the sediment surface, which mirrored total cell count distributions. Highest MPN counts were obtained with a mixture of different monomeric and polymeric substrates, with amino acids or with long-chain fatty acids as sole carbon sources. These values reached up to 2 x 10(7) cm(-3), representing 3.3% of the total cell count. A total of 98 pure cultures were isolated from the highest positive dilutions of the MPN series, representing the most abundant microorganisms culturable by the methods used. The strains were identified by molecular biological methods and could be grouped into 19 different phylotypes. They belonged to the alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-Proteobacteria, to the Actinobacteria and the Firmicutes. However, about half of the number of isolates was closely related to the genera Photobacterium and Agrobacterium. Regarding the high cultivation success, these organisms can be assumed to be typical sapropel bacteria, representing a substantial part of the culturable indigenous microbial community.