This study compared the toxic effects of adding chromium (Cr), zinc (Zn), lead (Pb), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), and cadmium (Cd) at three dose levels to mor layer samples in laboratory experiments. Microbial activity in the form of soil respiration was monitored for 64 days. At the end of the experimental period, the composition of the soil microbial community structure was analysed by phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis. The metals added induced changes in the microbial community structure and affected respiration negatively, indicating toxicity. The microbial community structure (principal component analysis of the PLFA pattern) for all metals was significantly related to microbial activity (cumulative respiration), indicating intimate links between microbial community structure and activity. The most striking result in this study was that the shift in the microbial community because of metal stress was similar for all metals. Thus, the PLFA i16:0 increased most in relative abundance in metal-polluted soils, followed by other PLFAs indicative of Gram-positive bacteria (10Me16:0, 10Me17:0, 10Me18:0, a17:0 and br18:0). The PLFA 16:1 omega 5 was consistently negatively affected by metal stress, as were the PLFAs 18:1, 18:1 omega 7 and 19:1a. However, a significant separation between Cr- and Cd-polluted soils was observed in the response of the PLFA cy19:0, which decreased in abundance with Cr stress, and increased with Cd stress. Furthermore, the PLFA 18:2w6, indicating fungi, only increased with Cr and Zn stress. The effective doses of the metals, ranked with regard to background metal concentrations, decreased in the order: Zn > Cr > Pb > Mo > Ni > Cd. We concluded that interpretation of results of microbial activity from experiments of metal toxicity should include microbial structural patterns and background metal concentrations.