Nitrate is a significant nitrogen source for plants and microorganisms. Recent molecular genetic analyses of representative bacterial species have revealed structural and regulatory genes responsible for the nitrate-assimilation phenotype. Together with results from physiological and biochemical studies, this information has unveiled fundamental aspects of bacterial nitrate assimilation and provides the foundation for further investigations. Well-studied genera are: the cyanobacteria, including the unicellular Synechococcus and the filamentous Anabaena; the gamma-proteobacteria Klebsiella and Azotobacter; and a Gram-positive bacterium, Bacillus. Nitrate uptake in most of these groups seems to involve a periplasmic binding protein-dependent system that presumably is energized by ATP hydrolysis (ATP-binding cassette transporters). However, Bacillus may, like fungi and plants, utilize electrogenic uptake through a representative of the major facilitator superfamily of transport proteins. Nitrate reductase contains both molybdenum cofactor and an iron-sulfur cluster. Electron donors for the enzymes from cyanobacteria and Azotobacter are ferredoxin and flavodoxin, respectively, whereas the Klebsiella and Bacillus enzymes apparently accept electrons from a specific NAD(P)H-reducing subunit. These subunits share sequence similarity with the reductase components of bacterial aromatic ring-hydroxylating dehydrogenases such as toluene dioxygenase. Nitrite reductase contains sirohaem and an iron-sulfur cluster. The enzymes from cyanobacteria and plants use ferredoxin as the electron donor, whereas the larger enzymes from other bacteria and fungi contain FAD and NAD(P)H binding sites. Nevertheless, the two forms of nitrite reductase share recognizable sequence and structural similarity. Synthesis of nitrate assimilation enzymes and uptake systems is controlled by nitrogen limitation in all bacteria examined, but the relevant regulatory proteins exhibit considerable structural and mechanistic diversity in different bacterial groups. A second level of control, pathway-specific induction by nitrate and nitrite in Klebsiella, involves transcription antitermination. Several issues await further experimentation, including the mechanism and energetics of nitrate uptake, the pathway(s) for nitrite uptake, the nature of electron flow during nitrate reduction, and the action of transcriptional regulatory circuits. Fundamental knowledge of nitrate assimilation physiology should also enhance the study of nitrate metabolism in soil, water and other natural environments, a challenging topic of considerable interest and importance.