Marine pelagic N(2)-fixing bacteria have not, in general, been identified or quantified, since low or negligible rates of N(2) fixation have been recorded for seawater when blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) are absent. In the study reported here, marine N(2)-fixing bacteria were found in all samples of seawater collected and were analyzed by using a most-probable-number (MPN) method. Two different media were used which allowed growth of microaerophiles, as well as that of aerobes and facultative anaerobes. MPN values obtained for N(2)-fixing bacteria ranged from 0.4 to 1 x 10 per liter for water collected off the coast of Puerto Rico and from 2 to 5.5 x 10 per liter for Chesapeake Bay water. Over 100 strains of N(2)-fixing bacteria were isolated from the MPN tubes and classified, yielding four major groups of NaCl-requiring bacteria based on biochemical characteristics. Results of differential filtration studies indicate that N(2)-fixing bacteria may be associated with phytoplankton. In addition, when N(2)-fixing bacteria were inoculated into unfiltered seawater and incubated in situ, nitrogenase activity could be detected within 1 h. However, no nitrogenase activity was detected in uninoculated seawater or when bacteria were incubated in 0.2-mum-filtered (phytoplankton-free) seawater. The ability of these isolates to fix N(2) at ambient conditions in seawater and the large variety of N(2)-fixing bacteria isolated and identified lead to the conclusion that N(2) fixation in the ocean may occur to a greater degree than previously believed.