The relationship between ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) and potential nitrification rates was examined along a salinity gradient in a New England estuary in spring and late summer over 3 years. Ammonia-oxidizing bacteria abundance was estimated by measuring gene copies of the ammonia monooxygenase catalytic subunit (amoA) using real-time polymerase chain reaction. Ammonia-oxidizing bacteria abundance ranged from below detection to 6.0 x 10(7)amoA copies (gdw sediment)(-1). Mean potential nitrification rates ranged from 0.5 to 186.5 nmol N (gdw sediment)(-1) day(-1). Both AOB abundance and potential rates were significantly higher in spring than late summer. Correlations between rates and abundance varied significantly among sites, but showed site-specific ammonia oxidation kinetics related to AOB community structure. The effect of salinity on potential nitrification rates was evaluated by incubating sediment from each site under four salinity conditions (0, 5, 10 and 30 psu). At all sites, rates were generally highest in the intermediate salinity treatments, but rates at the upstream site were inhibited at high salinity, while rates at the two downstream sites were inhibited at the lowest salinity. Although salinity appears to be an important factor in determining AOB distribution, it may not be the primary factor as AOB exhibited a broad range of salinity tolerance in our experiments. Our results indicate that there are significant differences in abundance and community composition of AOB along the salinity gradient, and the differences are reflected in community function.