Lack of carbon has been assumed to be the most common limiting factor for bacterial growth in soil, although there are reports of limitation by other nutrients, e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus. We have studied which nutrient(s) limited instantaneous growth rates of bacteria in 28 Swedish soils using the thymidine or leucine incorporation technique to measure increased growth rate after adding different combinations of organic carbon (glucose), nitrogen and phosphorus. The soils ranged in pH between 3.1 and 8.9, in organic matter content between I% and 91 % and in soil C/N ratio between 10 and 28. We also tested the effect of adding different amounts of carbon on the bacterial change in growth rate for two soils with different organic matter content. We found that bacterial growth in most of the 28 soils was limited by a lack of carbon, indicated by an increased bacterial growth rate 48 h after adding glucose. In some soils, adding carbon together with nitrogen increased the bacterial growth rates even further. In three soils no effects were seen upon adding nutrients separately, but adding carbon and nitrogen together increased bacterial growth rates. Nitrogen addition tended to decrease bacterial growth rates, while phosphorus addition had little effect in most soils. No correlations were found between the soil C/N ratio, ammonium or nitrate content in soil and bacterial growth limitation, indicating that even soils with a C/N ratio of 28 could be carbon limited. Although the interpretation of the effects of a single limiting nutrient was in most cases straightforward, an interaction between the amount of carbon added and the organic matter content of the soil confounded the interpretation of the extent of a second limiting nutrient. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.