Maras salterns are located 3,380 m above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. These salterns consist of more than 3,000 little ponds which are not interconnected and act as crystallizers where salt precipitates. These ponds are fed by hypersaline spring water rich in sodium and chloride. The microbiota inhabiting these salterns was examined by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), 16S rRNA gene clone library analysis, and cultivation techniques. The total counts per milliliter in the ponds were around 2 x 10(6) to 3 x 10(6) cells/ml, while the spring water contained less than 100 cells/ml and did not yield any detectable FISH signal. The microbiota inhabiting the ponds was dominated (80 to 86% of the total counts) by Archaea, while Bacteria accounted for 10 to 13% of the 4',6'-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI) counts. A total of 239 16S rRNA gene clones were analyzed (132 Archaea clones and 107 Bacteria clones). According to the clone libraries, the archaeal assemblage was dominated by microorganisms related to the cosmopolitan square archaeon "Haloquadra walsbyi," although a substantial number of the sequences in the libraries (31% of the 16S rRNA gene archaeal clones) were related to Halobacterium sp., which is not normally found in clone libraries from solar salterns. All the bacterial clones were closely related to each other and to the gamma-proteobacterium "Pseudomonas halophila" DSM 3050. FISH analysis with a probe specific for this bacterial assemblage revealed that it accounted for 69 to 76% of the total bacterial counts detected with a Bacteria-specific probe. When pond water was used to inoculate solid media containing 25% total salts, both extremely halophilic Archaea and Bacteria were isolated. Archaeal isolates were not related to the isolates in clone libraries, although several bacterial isolates were very closely related to the "P. halophila" cluster found in the libraries. As observed for other hypersaline environments, extremely halophilic bacteria that had ecological relevance seemed to be easier to culture than their archaeal counterparts.