The bacterial community composition of the active layer (0-45 cm) of a permafrost-affected tundra soil was analysed by fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH). Arctic tundra soils contain large amounts of organic carbon, accumulated in thick soil layers and are known as a major sink of atmospheric CO(2). These soils are totally frozen throughout the year and only a thin active layer is unfrozen and shows biological activity during the short summer. To improve the understanding of how the carbon fluxes in the active layer are controlled, detailed analysis of composition, functionality and interaction of soil microorganisms was done. The FISH analyses of the active layer showed large variations in absolute cell numbers and in the composition of the active microbial community between the different horizons, which is caused by the different environmental conditions (e.g., soil temperature, amount of organic matter, aeration) in this vertically structured ecosystem. Universal protein stain 5-(4,6-dichlorotriazin-2-yl)aminofluorescein (DTAF) showed an exponential decrease of total cell counts from the top to the bottom of the active layer (2.3 x 10(9)-1.2 x 10(8) cells per gram dry soil). Using FISH, up to 59% of the DTAF-detected cells could be detected in the surface horizon, and up to 84% of these FISH-detected cells could be affiliated to a known phylogenetic group. The amount of FISH-detectable cells decreased with increasing depth and so did the diversity of ascertained phylogenetic groups.