In full-scale drinking water production from groundwater, subsurface aeration is an effective means of enhancing the often troublesome process of nitrification. Until now the exact mechanism, however, has been unknown. By studying the microbial population we can improve the understanding of this process. Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis of PCR-amplified 16S rRNA gene fragments of bacteria, archaea and ammonia-oxidizing bacteria was used to characterize the microbial populations in raw groundwater and trickling filters of an active nitrifying surface aerated system and an inactive non-surface aerated system. Only in the active filter were nitrifying microorganisms found above the detection limit of the method. In ammonia oxidation in this groundwater filter both bacteria and archaea played a role, while members belonging to the genus Nitrospira were the only nitrite-oxidizing species found. The subsurface aerated groundwater did not contain any of the nitrifying organisms active in the filter above the detection limit, but did contain Gallionella species that might play a major role in iron oxidation in the filter.