We have developed a highly sensitive approach to assess the abundance of uncultured bacteria in water samples from the central Baltic Sea by using a noncultured member of the "Epsilonproteobacteria" related to Thiomicrospira denitrificans as an example. Environmental seawater samples and samples enriched for the target taxon provided a unique opportunity to test the approach over a broad range of abundances. The approach is based on a combination of taxon- and domain-specific real-time PCR measurements determining the relative T. denitrificans-like 16S rRNA gene and 16S rRNA abundances, as well as the determination of total cell counts and environmental RNA content. It allowed quantification of T. denitrificans-like 16S rRNA molecules or 16S rRNA genes as well as calculation of the number of ribosomes per T. denitrificans-like cell. Every real-time measurement and its specific primer system were calibrated using environmental nucleic acids obtained from the original habitat for external standardization. These standards, as well as the respective samples to be measured, were prepared from the same DNA or RNA extract. Enrichment samples could be analyzed directly, whereas environmental templates had to be preamplified with general bacterial primers before quantification. Preamplification increased the sensitivity of the assay by more than 4 orders of magnitude. Quantification of enrichments with or without a preamplification step yielded comparable results. T. denitrificans-like 16S rRNA molecules ranged from 7.1 x 10(3) to 4.4 x 10(9) copies ml(-1) or 0.002 to 49.7% relative abundance. T. denitrificans-like 16S rRNA genes ranged from 9.0 x 10(1) to 2.2 x10(6) copies ml(-1) or 0.01 to 49.7% relative abundance. Detection limits of this real-time-PCR approach were 20 16S rRNA molecules or 0.2 16S rRNA gene ml(-1). The number of ribosomes per T. denitrificans-like cell was estimated to range from 20 to 200 in seawater and reached up to 2,000 in the enrichments. The results indicate that our real-time PCR approach can be used to determine cellular and relative abundances of uncultured marine bacterial taxa and to provide information about their levels of activity in their natural environment.