Resource availability and limiting factors for bacterial growth during early stages of soil development (8-138 years) were studied along a chronosequence from the glacial forefield of the Damma glacier in the Swiss Alps. We determined bacterial growth (leucine incorporation) and we investigated which resource (C, N or P) limited bacterial growth in soils formed by the retreating glacier. The latter was determined by adding labile sources of C (glucose), N and P to soil samples and then measuring the bacterial growth response after a 40 h incubation period. Bacterial growth increased with increasing soil age in parallel with the build up of organic matter. However, lower bacterial growth, when standardized to the amount of organic C, was found with time since the glacier retreat, indicating decreasing availability of soil organic matter with soil age. Bacterial growth in older soils was limited by the lack of C. The bacteria were never found to be limited by only N, only P. or N + P. In the youngest soils, however, neither the addition of C, N nor P singly increased bacterial growth, while a combination of C and N did. Bacterial growth was relatively more limited by lack of N than P when the C limitation was alleviated, suggesting that N was the secondary limiting resource. The availability of N for bacterial growth increased with time, as seen by an increased bacterial growth response after adding only C in older soils. This study demonstrated that bacterial growth measurements can be used not only to indicate direct growth effects, but also as a rapid method to indicate changes in bacterial availability of nutrients during soil development. Crown Copyright (C) 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.