Highly reduced sediments from San Diego Bay, Calif., that were incubated under strictly anaerobic conditions metabolized benzene within 55 days when they were exposed initially to 1 (mu)M benzene. The rate of benzene metabolism increased as benzene was added back to the benzene-adapted sediments. When a [(sup14)C]benzene tracer was included with the benzene added to benzene-adapted sediments, 92% of the added radioactivity was recovered as (sup14)CO(inf2). Molybdate, an inhibitor of sulfate reduction, inhibited benzene uptake and production of (sup14)CO(inf2) from [(sup14)C]benzene. Benzene metabolism stopped when the sediments became sulfate depleted, and benzene uptake resumed when sulfate was added again. The stoichiometry of benzene uptake and sulfate reduction was consistent with the hypothesis that sulfate was the principal electron acceptor for benzene oxidation. Isotope trapping experiments performed with [(sup14)C]benzene revealed that there was no production of such potential extracellular intermediates of benzene oxidation as phenol, benzoate, p-hydroxybenzoate, cyclohexane, catechol, and acetate. The results demonstrate that benzene can be oxidized in the absence of O(inf2), with sulfate serving as the electron acceptor, and suggest that some sulfate reducers are capable of completely oxidizing benzene to carbon dioxide without the production of extracellular intermediates. Although anaerobic benzene oxidation coupled to chelated Fe(III) has been documented previously, the study reported here provides the first example of a natural sediment compound that can serve as an electron acceptor for anaerobic benzene oxidation.