Abstract Bacteria isolated from soil, canal water, and sewage utilised short-chain (C 1–C 4) primary alkyl sulphate esters as sources of carbon and energy. Butyl and propyl sulphates, but not the C 1 and C 2 homologues, were degraded by a soil isolate (coryneform rod, strain B1a) which liberated SO 2− 4 stoicheiometrically from growth-supporting esters. Cell-extracts contained a sulphatase active towards C 3–C 7 primary alkyl sulphates, and this enzyme was presumed responsible for initiating the degradation. A sewage isolate ( Xanthobacter sp. E5a) utilised exclusively ethyl sulphate, and a canal water isolate (strain M3C, tentatively assigned to the genus Agrobacterium) used only methyl sulphate. Strains E5a and M3c liberated SO 2− 4 stoicheiometrically from ethyl and methyl sulphates, respectively, but efforts to detect corresponding sulphatases in cell extracts failed, suggesting that metabolism of the C 1 and C 2 esters was initiated by an alternative, possibly oxidative, step. A Hyphomicrobium strain isolated from soil grew either aerobically or as a denitrifier in methyl sulphate minimal medium.