The ability of heterotrophic bacteria in a nitrite-oxidising bioreactor to respire with nitrate as an electron acceptor was examined. Approximately 70% of 1000 heterotrophic isolates were able to express a nitrate reductase. A detailed survey of 15 isolates showed that five expressed the azide-insensitive nitrate reductase encoded by the napA gene. A two-round PCR amplification of the napA gene using degenerate PCR primers and DNA sequence analysis of these products confirmed the presence of this gene in the positive isolates. Partial 16S rDNA products and napA products were amplified from the biomass in the bioreactor and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis of these products identified 21 distinct ribotypes and 12 distinct napA sequences. The results show that the ability to respire with nitrate as an electron acceptor under aerobic conditions is widespread among the heterotrophic population of this bioreactor. (C) 2000 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.