The vertical distribution of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) at different sediment depths, namely 0-2 cm, 2-4 cm, 4-6 cm, 6-10 cm, 10-15 cm and 15-20 cm, in one of the most contaminated mangrove swamps, Ma Wan, Hong Kong was investigated. It was the first time to study the intrinsic potential of deep sediment to biodegrade PAHs under anaerobic conditions and the abundance of electron acceptors in sediment for anaerobic degradation. Results showed that the total PAHs concentrations (summation of 16 US EPA priority PAHs) increased with sediment depth. The lowest concentration (about 1300 ng g(-1) freeze-dried sediment) and the highest value (around 5000 ng g(-1) freeze-dried sediment) were found in the surface layer (0-2 cm) and deeper layer (10-15 cm), respectively. The percentage of high molecular weight (HMW) PAHs (4 to 6 rings) to total PAHs was more than 89% at all sediment depths. The ratio of phenanthrene to anthracene was less than 10 while fluoranthene to pyrene was around 1. Negative redox potentials (Eh) were recorded in all of the sediment samples, ranging from -170 to -200 mv, with a sharp decrease at a depth of 6 cm then declined slowly to 20 cm. The results suggested that HMW PAHs originated from diesel-powered fishing vessels and were mainly accumulated in deep anaerobic sediments. Among the electron acceptors commonly used by anaerobic bacteria, sulfate was the most dominant, followed by iron(III), nitrate and manganese(IV) was the least. Their concentrations also decreased with sediment depth. The population size of total anaerobic heterotrophic bacteria increased with sediment depth, reaching the peak number in the middle layer (4-6 cm). In contrast, the aerobic heterotrophic bacterial count decreased with sediment depth. It was the first time to apply a modified electron transport system (ETS) method to evaluate the bacterial activities in the fresh sediment under PAH stress. The vertical drop of the ETS activity suggested that the indigenous bacteria were still active in the anaerobic sediment layer contaminated with PAHs. The biodegradation experiment further proved that the sediment collected at a depth of 10-15 cm harbored anaerobic PAH-degrading bacterial strains (two Sphingomonas, one Microbacterium, one Rhodococcus and two unknown species) with some intrinsic potential to degrade mixed PAHs consisting of fluorene, phenanthrene, fluoranthene and pyrene under low oxygen (2% O(2)) and non-oxygen (0% O(2)) conditions. This is the first paper to report the anaerobic PAH-degrading bacteria isolated from subsurface mangrove sediment.