The association between protists, bacteria, and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in an oxygen-depleted, 6 km-long wastewater contaminant plume within a sandy aquifer (Cape Cod, MA) was investigated by comparing abundance patterns along longitudinal and vertical transects and at a control site. Strong linear correlations were observed between unattached bacterial abundance and DOC for much of the upgradient-half of the plume (0.1-2.5 km downgradient from the source) that is characterized by quasi-steady state chemistry. However, a logarithmic decrease was observed between the number of protists supported per mg of DOC and the estimated age of the DOC within the plume. The relatively labile dissolved organic contaminants that characterize the groundwater sampled from the plume < or = 0.1 km downgradient from the contaminant source appeared to indirectly support 3-4 times as many protists (per mg of DOC) as the older, more recalcitrant DOC in the alkylbenzene sulfonate (ABS)-contaminated zone at 3 km downgradient (approximately 30 years travel time). Substantive numbers of protists (>10(4)/cm3) were recovered from suboxic zones of the plume. The higher than expected ratios of protists to unattached bacteria (10 to 100:1) observed in much of the plume suggest that protists may be grazing upon both surface-associated and unattached bacterial communities to meet their nutritional requirements. In closed bottle incubation experiments, the presence of protists caused an increase in bacterial growth rate, which became more apparent at higher amendments of labile DOC (3-20 mgC/L). The presence of protists resulted in an increase in the apparent substrate saturation level for the unattached bacterial community, suggesting an important role for protists in the fate of more-labile aquifer organic contaminants.