Moisture may limit microbial activity in a wide range of environments including salt water, food, wood, biofilms, and soils. Low water availability can inhibit microbial activity by lowering intracellular water potential and thus reducing hydration and activity of enzymes. In solid matrices, low water content may also reduce microbial activity by restricting substrate supply. As pores within solid matrices drain and water films coating surfaces become thinner, diffusion path lengths become more tortuous, and the rate of substrate diffusion to microbial cells declines. We used two independent techniques to evaluate the relative importance of cytoplasmic dehydration versus diffusional limitations in controlling rates of nitrification in soil. Nitrification rates in shaken soil slurries, in which NH(inf4)(sup+) was maintained at high concentrations and osmotic potential was controlled by the addition of K(inf2)SO(inf4), were compared with rates in moist soil incubations, in which substrate supply was controlled by the addition of NH(inf3) gas. Comparison of results from these techniques demonstrated that diffusional limitation of substrate supply and adverse physiologic effects associated with cell dehydration can explain all of the decline in activity of nitrifying bacteria at low soil water content. However, the relative importance of substrate limitation and dehydration changes at different water potentials. For the soil-microbial system we worked with, substrate limitation was the major inhibiting factor when soil water potentials were greater than -0.6 MPa, whereas adverse physiological effects associated with cell dehydration were more inhibiting at water potentials of less than -0.6 MPa.