The effects of heavy metals and phytoextraction practices on a soil microbial Community were studied during 12 months using a hyperaccumulating plant (Thlaspi caerulcseens) grown in an artificially contaminated soil. The 16S ribosomal RNA genes of the Bacteria and the beta-Proteobacteria and the amoA gene (encoding the a-subunit of ammonia monooxygenase) were PCR-amplified and analysed by denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE). Principal component analysis (PCA) of the DGGE data revealed that: (i) the heavy metals had the most drastic effects on the bacterial groups targeted, (ii) the plant induced changes which could be observed in the amoA and in the Bacteria 16S rRNA gene patterns, (iii) the changes observed during 12 months in the DGGE-patterns of the planted contaminated soil did not indicate recovery of the initial bacterial community present in the non-contaminated soil. The potential function of the microbial community was assessed recording community level physiological profiles (CLPP) and analysing them by PCA. The lower capability of the bacterial community to degrade the substrates provided in the BIOLOG plates, in particular the amino acids, amides and amines, as well as a delay in the average well colour development (AWCD) differentiated the bacterial community of the contaminated samples from that of the non-contaminated ones. However, the plant had a positive effect on substrate utilization as shown by the greater number of substrates used in all planted samples compared to implanted ones. Finally, the measurement of the potential ammonia oxidation indicated that ammonia oxidising bacteria were completely inhibited in the contaminated soil. The stimulation of ammonia oxidation by the plant observed in the non-contaminated samples was surpassed by the inhibitory effect of the heavy metals in the contaminated soil. This study emphasises the combined use of culture-independent techniques with conventional methods to investigate the ecology of bacteria in their natural habitats. (C) 2004 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.