The effect of oxygen on N(2)-dependent growth of two Azospirillum strains and two diazotrophic rods closely associated with roots of Kallar grass (Leptochloa fusca) was studied. To enable precise comparison, bacteria were grown in dissolved-oxygen-controlled batch and continuous cultures. Steady states were obtained from about 1 to 30 muM O(2), some of them being carbon limited. All strains needed a minimum amount of oxygen for N(2)-dependent growth. Nitrogen contents between 10 and 13% of cell dry weight were observed. The response of steady-state cultures to increasing O(2) concentrations suggested that carbon limitation shifted to internal nitrogen limitation when N(2) fixation became so low that the bacteria could no longer meet their requirements for fixed nitrogen. For Azospirillum lipoferum Rp5, increase of the dilution rate resulted in decreased N(2) fixation in steady-state cultures with internal nitrogen limitation. Oxygen tolerance was found to be strain specific in A. lipoferum with strain Sp59b as a reference organism. Oxygen tolerance of strains from Kallar grass was found to be root zone specific. A. halopraeferens Au 4 and A. lipoferum Rp5, predominating on the rhizoplane of Kallar grass, and strains H6a2 and BH72, predominating in the endorhizosphere, differed in their oxygen tolerance profiles. Strains H6a2 and BH72 still grew and fixed nitrogen in steady-state cultures at O(2) concentrations exceeding those which absolutely inhibited nitrogen fixation of both Azospirillum strains. It is proposed that root-zone-specific oxygen tolerance reflects an adaptation of the isolates to the microenvironments provided by the host plant.