The extracellular enzymatic activity of a mixed culture of anaerobic marine bacteria enriched on pullulan [alpha(1,6)-linked maltotriose units] was directly assessed with a combination of gel permeation chromatography (GPC) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). Hydrolysis products of pullulan were separated by GPC into three fractions with molecular weights of > or = 10,000, approximately 5,000, and < or = 1,200. NMR spectra of these fractions demonstrated that pullulan was rapidly and specifically hydrolyzed at alpha(1,6) linkages by pullulanase enzymes, most likely type II pullulanase. Although isolated pullulanase enzymes have been shown to hydrolyze pullulan completely to maltotriose (S. H. Brown, H. R. Costantino, and R. M. Kelly, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 56:1985-1991, 1990; M. Klingeberg, H. Hippe, and G. Antranikian, FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 69:145-152, 1990; R. Koch, P. Zablowski, A. Spreinat, and G. Antranikian, FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 71:21-26, 1990), the smallest carbohydrate detected in the bacterial cultures consisted of two maltotriose units linked through one alpha(1,6) linkage. Either the final hydrolysis step was closely linked to substrate uptake, or specialized porins similar to maltoporin might permit direct transport of large oligosaccharides into the bacterial cell. This is the first report of pullulanase activity among mesophilic marine bacteria. The combination of GPC and NMR could easily be used to assess other types of extracellular enzyme activity in bacterial cultures.