Previous studies on the geochemistry of a shallow unconfined aquifer contaminated with hydrocarbons suggested that the degradation of some hydrocarbons was linked to bacterial sulphate reduction. There was attenuation of naphthalene, 1,3,5-trimethylbenzene (TMB), toluene, p-xylene and ethylbenzene in the groundwater with concomitant loss of sulphate. Here, the recovery of eight strains of sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) from the contaminated site is reported. All were straight or curved rod-shaped cells which formed endospores. Amplification and sequencing of the 16S rDNA indicated that the strains were all sulphate reducers of the Gram-positive line of descent, and were most closely related to Desulfosporosinus (previously Desulfotomaculum) orientis DSM 8344 (97-98.9% sequence similarity). The strains clustered in three phylogenetic groups based on 16S rRNA sequences. Whole cell fatty acid compositions were similar to those of D. orientis DSM 8344, and were consistent with previous studies of fatty acids in soil and groundwater from the site. Microcosms containing groundwater from this aquifer indicated a role for sulphate reduction in the degradation of [ring-UL-C-14]toluene, but not for the degradation of [UL-C-14]benzene which could also be degraded by the microcosms. Adding one of the strains that was isolated from the groundwater (strain T2) to sulphate-enriched microcosms increased the rate of toluene degradation four- to 10-fold but had no effect on the rate of benzene degradation. The addition of molybdate, an inhibitor of sulphate reduction, to the groundwater samples decreased the rate of toluene mineralization. There was no evidence to support the mineralization of [UL-C-14]benzene, [ring-UL-C-14]toluene or unlabelled m-xylene, p-xylene, ethylbenzene, TMB or naphthalene by any of the strains in pure culture. Growth of all the strains was completely inhibited by 100 mu mol l(-1) TMB.