Understanding hydrothermal ecosystems, both past and present, requires basic information on the types of organisms present. Traditional methods, which require cultivation of microorganisms, fail to detect many taxa. We have used phylogenetic analyses of small subunit rRNA sequences obtained from microorganisms of a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park to explore the archael (archaebacterial) diversity present. Analysis of these sequences reveals several novel groups of archaea, greatly expanding our conception of the diversity of high temperature microorganisms, and demonstrating that hydrothermal systems harbour a rich variety of life. Many of these groups diverged from the archael line of descent early during evolution, and an understanding of their common properties may assist in inference of the nature of the last common ancestor of all life. The data also show a specific relationship between low-temperature marine archaea and some hot spring archaea, consistent with a thermophilic origin of life. Future use of rRNA-sequence-based techniques in exploration of hydrothermal systems should greatly facilitate study of modern thermophiles and give us insight into the activities of extinct communities as well.