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Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) is a powerful and convenient tool for analyzing the sequence diversity of complex natural microbial populations. DGGE was evaluated for the identification of ammonia oxidizers of the beta subdivision of the Proteobacteria based on the mobility of PCR-amplified 16S rDNA fragments and for the analysis of mixtures of PCR products from this group generated by selective PCR of DNA extracted from coastal sand dunes. Degenerate PCR primers, CTO189f-GC and CTO654r, incorporating a 5' GC clamp, were designed to amplify a 465-bp 16S rDNA region spanning the V-2 and V-3 variable domains. The primers were tested against a representative selection of clones and cultures encompassing the currently recognized beta-subdivision ammonia oxidizer 16S rDNA sequence diversity. Analysis of these products by DGGE revealed that while many of the sequences could be separated, some which were known to be different migrated similarly in the denaturant system used. The CTO primer pair was used to amplify 16S rDNA sequences from DNA extracted from soil sampled from Dutch coastal dune locations of differing in pH and distance from the beach. The derived DGGE patterns were reproducible across multiple DNA isolations and PCRs. Ammonia oxidizer-like sequences from different phylogenetic groupings isolated from gene libraries made from the same sand dune DNA samples but prepared with different primers gave DGGE bands which comigrated with most of the bands detected from the sand dune samples. Bands from the DGGE gels of environmental samples were excised, reamplified, and directly sequenced, revealing strong similarity or identity of the recovered products to the corresponding regions of library clones. Six of the seven sequenced clusters of beta-subdivision ammonia oxidizers were detected in the dune systems, and differences in community structure between some sample sites were demonstrated. The most seaward dune site contained sequences showing affinity with sequence clusters previously isolated only from marine environments and was the only site where sequences relate to Nitrosomonas genes could be detected. Nitrosospira-like sequences were present in all sites, and there was some evidence of differences between Nitrosospira populations in acid and alkaline dune soils. Such differences in community structure may affect physiological differences within beta-subdivision ammonia oxidizers, with consequent effects on nitrification rates in response to key environmental factors.