The species diversity, phylogenetic affiliations, and physiological activity rates of carbon monoxide-oxidizing microorganisms were investigated, using new isolates from surface waters collected from the coast of New England and type strains from established collections. A direct isolation method allowed the simultaneous recovery of organisms with different growth rates and nutritional requirements and the identification of marine microorganisms that oxidize CO at an environmentally relevant concentration (42 nM CO). Isolates that oxidized CO at environmentally relevant rates (>4.5x10(-11) nmol CO oxidized cell-1 h-1) were taxonomically diverse, with representatives in the alpha and gamma subclasses of the Proteobacteria and the phylum Bacteroidetes, and represent a hitherto unreported metabolic function for several diverse microbial types. Isolates and type strains having the greatest specific rates of CO metabolism (1.1x10(-10) to 2.3x10(-10) nmol CO oxidized cell-1 h-1) belonged to the Roseobacter-associated clade (RAC) of the alpha subclass of the Proteobacteria. By using triple-labeled slide preparations, differential counts of active CO-oxidizing RAC cells, total RAC cells, and total bacterial cell counts in environmental samples were obtained. RAC organisms were a major component of total cell numbers (36%). Based on the density of active CO-oxidizing RAC cells in natural samples and RAC-specific metabolic activities determined for pure cultures, active CO-oxidizing RAC cells may contribute up to 15% of the total CO oxidation occurring in coastal waters.