In order to better understand the main factors that influence the distribution of sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB), their population size and their metabolic activity in high- and low-sulfate zones, we studied the SRB diversity in 3- to 5-m-deep sediment cores, which comprised the entire sulfate reduction zone and the upper methanogenic zone. By combining EMA (ethidium monoazide that can only enter damaged/dead cells and may also bind to free DNA) treatment with real-time PCR, we determined the distributions of total intact bacteria (16S rDNA genes) and intact SRB (dsrAB gene), their relative population sizes, and the proportion of dead cells or free DNA with depth. The abundance of SRB corresponded in average to 13% of the total bacterial community in the sulfate zone, 22% in the sulfate–methane transition zone and 8% in the methane zone. Compared with the total bacterial community, there were relatively less dead/damaged cells and free DNA present than among the SRB and this fraction did not change systematically with depth. By DGGE analysis, based on the amplification of the dsrA gene (400 bp), we found that the richness of SRB did not change with depth through the geochemical zones; but the clustering was related to the chemical zonation. A full-length clone library of the dsrAB gene (1900 bp) was constructed from four different depths (20, 110, 280 and 500 cm), and showed that the dsrAB genes in the near-surface sediment (20 cm) was mainly composed of sequences close to the Desulfobacteraceae, including marine complete and incomplete oxidizers such as Desulfosarcina, Desulfobacterium and Desulfococcus. The three other libraries were predominantly composed of Gram-positive SRB.