Biomass recycle reactors (BRRs) were used as a model system to study the functional and structural adaptations of mixed bacterial communities in response to the imposition of increasingly severe nutrient limitation. BRRs were fed synthetic media containing either spinach homogenate or autoclaved yeast cells to simulate the complex mixtures of particulate carbon sources that are often present in nature. In the BRRs fed spinach homogenate, the biomass (measured as particulate protein) exhibited a physiological response similar to previous studies as detected by 40-80% reductions in respiratory potential and by relatively stable catabolic ectoenzyme activities. Concomitant adaptations in bacterial community structure were detected by PCR-DGGE and RT-PCR-DGGE of 16S rDNA and 16S rRNA fragments, respectively. The microbial community structure was dynamic even after the biomass had reached a quasi-steady state with respect to physiological measurements. In the BRRs fed yeast cells, respiratory potentials increased 2- to 5-fold during the initial portion of the BRR run and α-glucosidase and β-glucosidase activities increased 2- to 4-fold. Substantial bacterial community shifts were also detected in both the rDNA and rRNA profiles, indicating that this community was also structurally dynamic. These experiments suggest that phylogenetically different bacteria sustained the functional activities in these ecosystems in response to increasingly stringent nutrient limitation.