The short-chain hydrocarbons ethane, propane and butane are constituents of natural gas. They are usually assumed to be of thermochemical origin, but biological formation of ethane and propane has been also observed. Microbial utilization of short-chain hydrocarbons has been shown in some aerobic species but not in anaerobic species of bacteria. On the other hand, anaerobic utilization of short-chain hydrocarbons would in principle be expected because various anaerobic bacteria grow with higher homologues (> or =C(6)). Indeed, chemical analyses of hydrocarbon-rich habitats with limited or no access of oxygen indicated in situ biodegradation of short-chain hydrocarbons. Here we report the enrichment of sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) with such capacity from marine hydrocarbon seep areas. Propane or n-butane as the sole growth substrate led to sediment-free sulphate-reducing enrichment cultures growing at 12, 28 or 60 degrees C. With ethane, a slower enrichment with residual sediment was obtained at 12 degrees C. Isolation experiments resulted in a mesophilic pure culture (strain BuS5) that used only propane and n-butane (methane, isobutane, alcohols or carboxylic acids did not support growth). Complete hydrocarbon oxidation to CO2 and the preferential oxidation of 12C-enriched alkanes were observed with strain BuS5 and other cultures. Metabolites of propane included iso- and n-propylsuccinate, indicating a subterminal as well as an unprecedented terminal alkane activation with involvement of fumarate. According to 16S ribosomal RNA analyses, strain BuS5 affiliates with Desulfosarcina/Desulfococcus, a cluster of widespread marine SRB. An enrichment culture with propane growing at 60 degrees C was dominated by Desulfotomaculum-like SRB. Our results suggest that diverse SRB are able to thrive in seep areas and gas reservoirs on propane and butane, thus altering the gas composition and contributing to sulphide production.