Naturally occurring plasmids isolated from heterotrophic bacterial isolates originating from coastal California marine sediments were characterized by analyzing their incompatibility and replication properties. Previously, we reported on the lack of DNA homology between plasmids from the culturable bacterial population of marine sediments and the replicon probes specific for a number of well-characterized incompatibility and replication groups (P. A. Sobecky, T. J. Mincer, M. C. Chang, and D. R. Helinski, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 63:888-895, 1997). In the present study we isolated 1.8- to 2.3-kb fragments that contain functional replication origins from one relatively large (30-kb) and three small (<10-kb) naturally occurring plasmids present in different marine isolates. 16S rRNA sequence analyses indicated that the four plasmid-bearing marine isolates belonged to the alpha and gamma subclasses of the class Proteobacteria. Three of the marine sediment isolates are related to the gamma-3 subclass organisms Vibrio splendidus and Vibrio fischeri, while the fourth isolate may be related to Roseobacter litoralis. Sequence analysis of the plasmid replication regions revealed the presence of features common to replication origins of well-characterized plasmids from clinical bacterial isolates, suggesting that there may be similar mechanisms for plasmid replication initiation in the indigenous plasmids of gram-negative marine sediment bacteria. In addition to replication in Escherichia coli DH5alpha and C2110, the host ranges of the plasmid replicons, designated repSD41, repSD121, repSD164, and repSD172, extended to marine species belonging to the genera Achromobacter, Pseudomonas, Serratia, and Vibrio. While sequence analysis of repSD41 and repSD121 revealed considerable stretches of homology between the two fragments, these regions do not display incompatibility properties against each other. The replication origin repSD41 was detected in 5% of the culturable plasmid-bearing marine sediment bacterial isolates, whereas the replication origins repSD164 and repSD172 were not detected in any plasmid-bearing bacteria other than the parental isolates. Microbial community DNA extracted from samples collected in November 1995 and June 1997 and amplified by PCR yielded positive signals when they were hybridized with probes specific for repSD41 and repSD172 replication sequences. In contrast, replication sequences specific for repSD164 were not detected in the DNA extracted from marine sediment microbial communities.