The dynamics of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P), elemental ratios, and dark uptake/release of N and P in bacterial and phytoplankton size fractions were studied during summer 1992 in three lakes of contrasting food web structure and trophic status (L240, L110, L227). We wished to determine if phytoplankton and bacteria differed in their elemental characteristics and to evaluate whether the functional role of bacteria in nutrient cycling (i.e., as sink or source) depended on bacterial elemental characteristics. Bacterial contributions to total suspended particulate material and to fluxes of nutrients in the dark were substantial and varied for different elements. This indicated that some techniques for assaying phytoplankton physiological condition are compromised by bacterial contributions. C/N ratios were generally less variable than C/P and N/P ratios. Both elemental ratios and biomass-normalized N and P flux indicated that phytoplankton growth in each lake was predominantly P-limited, although in L227 these data reflect the dominance of N-fixing cyanobacteria, and N was likely limiting early in the sampling season. In L227, phytoplankton N/P ratio and biomass-normalized N flux were negatively correlated, indicating that flux data were likely a reasonable measure of the N status of the phytoplankton. However, for L227 phytoplankton, P-flux per unit biomass was a hyperbolic function of N/P, suggesting that the dominant L227 cyanobacteria have a limited uptake and storage capacity and that P-flux per unit biomass may not be a good gauge of the P-limitation status of phytoplankton in this situation. Examination of N-flux data in the bacterial size fraction relative to the N/P ratio of the bacteria revealed a threshold N/P ratio (∼22:1 N/P, by atoms), below which, bacteria took up and sequestered added N, and above which, N was released. Thus, the functional role of bacteria in N cycling in these ecosystems depended on their N/P stoichiometry.