Microorganisms play key roles in the cycles of carbon and nutrients in the ocean, and identifying the extent to which specific taxa contribute to these cycles will establish their ecological function. We examined the use of (33)P-phosphate to identify heterotrophic bacteria actively involved in the cycling of phosphate, an essential inorganic nutrient. Seawater from the sub-tropical North Atlantic Ocean was incubated with (33)P-phosphate and analysed by microautoradiography to determine the proportion and diversity of the bacterial community-assimilating phosphate. Complementary incubations using (3)H-leucine and (3)H-thymidine were also conducted. We found that a higher proportion of total heterotrophic bacterial cells in surface water samples assimilated phosphate compared with leucine or thymidine. Bacteria from all of the phylogenetic groups we identified by CARD-FISH were able to assimilate phosphate, although the abundances of cells within each group did not scale directly with the number found to assimilate phosphate. Furthermore, a significantly higher proportion of Alphaproteobacteria, Gammaproteobacteria and Cytophaga-like cells assimilated phosphate compared with leucine or thymidine. Our results suggest that a greater proportion of bacterial cells in surface waters are actively participating in the biogeochemical cycling of phosphorus, and possibly other elements, than is currently estimated through the use of (3)H-leucine or (3)H-thymidine.