The recent isolation of the ammonia-oxidizing crenarchaeon Nitrosopumilus maritimus has expanded the known phylogenetic distribution of nitrifying phenotypes beyond the domain Bacteria. To further characterize nitrification in the marine environment and explore the potential crenarchaeal contribution to this process, we quantified putative nitrifying genes and phylotypes in picoplankton genomic libraries and environmental DNA samples from coastal and open ocean habitats. Betaproteobacteria ammonia monooxygenase subunit A (amoA) gene copy numbers were low or undetectable, in stark contrast to crenarchaeal amoA-like genes that were broadly distributed and reached up to 6 x 10(4) copies ml(-1). Unexpectedly, in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a deeply branching crenarchaeal group related to a hot spring clade (pSL12) was at times abundant below the euphotic zone. Quantitative data suggested that the pSL12 relatives also contain archaeal amoA-like genes. In both coastal and open ocean habitats, close relatives of known nitrite-oxidizing Nitrospina species were well represented in genomic DNA libraries and quantitative PCR profiles. Planktonic Nitrospina depth distributions correlated with those of Crenarchaea. Overall, the data suggest that amoA-containing Crenarchaea are more phylogenetically diverse than previously reported. Additionally, distributional patterns of planktonic Crenarchaea and Nitrospina species suggest potential metabolic interactions between these groups in the ocean's water column.