Abstract Fourier transform-infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy has been used to rapidly and nondestructively analyze bacteria, bacteria-polymer mixtures, digester samples and microbial biofilms. Diffuse reflectance FT-IR (DRIFT) analysis for freeze-dried, powdered samples offered a means of obtaining structural information. The bacteria examined were divided into two groups. The first group was characterized by a dominant amide I band and the second group of organisms displayed an additional strong carbonyl stretch at ∼ 1740 cm −1. The differences illustrated by the subtraction spectra obtained for microbes of the two groups suggests that FT-IR spectroscopy can be utilized to recognize differences in microbial community structure. Calculation of specific band ratios has enabled to composition of bacteria and extracellular or intracellular storage product polymer mixtures to be determined for bacteria-gum (amide I/carbohydrate C-O-∼ 1150 cm −1) and bacteria-poly-β-hydroxybutyrate (amide I/carbonyl ∼ 1740 cm −1). The key band ratios correlate with the compositions of the material and provide useful information for the application of FT-IR sepectroscopy to environmental biofilm samples and for distinguishing bacteria grown under differing nutrient conditions. DRIFT spectra have been obtained for biofilms produced by Vibrio natriegens on stainless steel disks. Between 48 and 144 h, an increase in bands at ∼ 1740 cm −1 was seen in FT-IR spectra of V. natriegens biofilm. DRIFT spectra of mixed culture effluents of anaerobic digesters show differences induced by shifts in input feedstocks. The use of flow-through attenuated total reflectance has permitted in situ real-time changes in biofilm formation to be monitored and provides a powerful tool for understanding the interactioni within adherent microbial consortia.