By means of the enrichment culture technique, a mixed population of microorganisms was obtained which catalyzed the dispersion of crude oil in supplemented sea water. From this enrichment culture, eight pure cultures were isolated and studied. Only one of the isolates (RAG-1) brought about a significant dispersion of crude oil. RAG-1 has been tentatively characterized as a member of the genus Arthrobacter. The other seven isolates gave rise to colonies on supplemented oil agar, but were neither able to disperse oil nor to stimulate the dispersion catalyzed by RAG-1. The dispersion of crude oil by either RAG-1 or the enrichment culture was absolutely dependent on exogenous sources of nitrogen and phosphorous and completely inhibited by 10(-2)m azide. The increase in cell number of RAG-1 was directly proportional to the concentration of crude oil added to the medium over the range 0.05 to 1.0 mg/ml. Within this linear region, 1.0 mg of crude oil yielded 9 x 10(7) cells and approximately 65% of the oil was converted into a nonbenzene extractable form. Accompanying the emulsification was a decrease in the pH from 7.6 to 5.0. Acidic conditions, however, were neither necessary nor sufficient for oil dispersion. When sea water was supplemented with 0.029 mm K(2)HPO(4) and 3.8 mm (NH(4))(2)SO(4) and inoculated with RAG-1, oil dispersion occurred within 1 day. This dispersion could also be brought about by the supernatant following separation of the cells from the medium. Similarly, the supernatant obtained following growth of RAG-1 on hexadecane was capable of emulsifying crude oil in 60 min.