AIMS Physiological responses of marine luminous bacteria, Vibrio harveyi (ATCC 14216) and V. fischeri (UM1373) to nutrient-limited normal strength (35 ppt iso-osmolarity) and low (10 ppt hypo-osmolarity) salinity conditions were determined. METHODS AND RESULTS Plate counts, direct viable counts, actively respiring cell counts, nucleoid-containing cell counts, and total counts were determined. Vibrio harveyi incubated at 22 degrees C in nutrient-limited artificial seawater (ASW) became nonculturable after approximately 62 and 45 d in microcosms of 35 ppt and 10 ppt ASW, respectively. In contrast, V. fischeri became nonculturable at approximately 55 and 31 d in similar microcosms. Recovery of both culturability and luminescence of cells in the viable but nonculturable state was achieved by addition of nutrient broth or nutrient broth supplemented with a carbon source, including luminescence-stimulating compounds. Temperature upshift from 22 degrees C to 30 degrees C or 37 degrees C did not result in recovery from nonculturability. CONCLUSIONS The study confirms entry of V. harveyi and V. fischeri into the viable but nonculturable state under low-nutrient conditions and demonstrates nutrient-dependent resuscitation from this state. SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT OF THE STUDY This study confirms loss of luminescence of V. harveyi and V. fischeri on entry into the viable but nonculturable state and suggests that enumeration of luminescent cells in water samples may be a rapid method to deduce the nutrient status of a water sample.