The phylogenetic relationship of chemoautotrophic, sulfur-oxidizing, ectosymbiotic bacteria growing on a marine nematode, a Laxus sp. (formerly a Catanema sp.), to known endosymbionts and free-living bacteria was determined. Comparative 16S rRNA sequencing was used to investigate the unculturable nematode epibionts, and rRNA-targeted oligonucleotide hybridization probes were used to identify the ectosymbionts in situ. Both analyses revealed a remarkably specific and stable symbiosis. Unique hybridization of a specific probe to the ectosymbionts indicated that only one species of bacteria was present and growing on the cuticle of the nematode. Distance and parsimony methods used to infer phylogenetic trees both placed the nematode ectosymbionts at the base of a branch containing chemoautotrophic, sulfur-oxidizing endosymbionts of three bivalve families and of the tube worm Riftia pachyptila. The most closely related free-living bacteria were chemoautotrophic sulfur oxidizers belonging to the genus Thiomicrospira. Furthermore, our results suggested that a second, only distantly related group of thioautotrophic endosymbionts has as its deepest branch surface-colonizing bacteria belonging to the genus Thiothrix, some of which are capable of sulfur-oxidizing chemoautotrophic growth.