Archaea and a number of groups of environmentally important bacteria, e.g., sulfate-reducing bacteria, anoxygenic phototrophs, and some thermophiles, are difficult to characterize using current methods developed for phenotypically differentiating heterotrophic bacteria. We have evaluated matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight (MALDI-TOF-MS) as a rapid method for identifying different groups of extremophilic prokaryotes using a linear mass spectrometer (Micromass, UK). The instrument is designed to acquire mass-spectral patterns from prokaryotic cell-wall components between masses of 500 and 10,000 Da in a statistically robust manner and create a database that can be used for identification. We have tested 28 archaea (10 genera, 20 spp.) and 42 bacteria (25 genera, 37 spp.) and found that all species yield reproducible, unique mass-spectral profiles. As a whole, the profiles for the archaea had fewer peaks and showed less differentiation compared to the bacteria, perhaps reflecting fundamental differences in cell-wall structure. The halophilic archaea all had consistent patterns that showed little differentiation; however, the software was able to consistently distinguish Halobacterium salinarium, Halococcus dombrowski, and Haloarcula marismortui from one another, although it could not always correctly distinguish four strains of Hb. salinarium from one another. The method was able to reliably identify 10(5) cells of either Albidovulum inexpectatum or Thermococcus litoralis and could detect as low as 10(3) cells. We found that the matrix, alpha-cyano-4-hydroxy-cinnamic acid yielded better spectra for archaea than 5-chloro-2-mercapto-benzothiazole. Overall, the method was rapid, required a minimum of sample processing, and was capable of distinguishing and identifying a very diverse group of prokaryotes.