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Free-living and particle-associated bacterial communities in the Chesapeake Bay estuary were analyzed and compared by using acridine orange direct counts and low-molecular-weight (LMW) RNA analysis. Samples were taken from top and bottom waters at upper- and mid-bay sites in December 1992. Free-living bacteria dominated the bacterial numbers at all sampling sites, although particle-associated bacteria increased in areas with greater particle loads. LMW RNAs (5S rRNA and tRNA) obtained directly from free-living, particle-associated, and total bacterioplankton communities were analyzed by high-resolution electrophoresis. There were distinct differences in the migration distances between LMW RNAs of free-living and particle-associated communities taken from the same site, indicating that the two communities differ in composition. In addition, LMW RNA profiles differed minimally with depth for all of the communities examined, presumably because of vertical mixing. 5S rRNAs of free-living communities from the upper- and mid-bay regions differed considerably. Particle-associated RNAs, on the other hand, were very similar, suggesting consistent environmental conditions on particles that select for similar community members. Lastly, several isolated bacteria had 5S rRNAs that were not detected in their respective extracted community 5S rRNAs, indicating that these isolated organisms were not representative of dominant members.