Culture-based and culture-independent methods were used to explore the diversity of phototrophic purple bacteria in Soap Lake, a small meromictic soda lake in the western USA. Among soda lakes, Soap Lake is unusual because it consists of distinct upper and lower water bodies of vastly different salinities, and its deep waters contain up to 175 mM sulfide. From Soap Lake water new alkaliphilic purple sulfur bacteria of the families Chromatiaceae and Ectothiorhodospiraceae were cultured, and one purple non-sulfur bacterium was isolated. Comparative sequence analysis of pufM, a gene that encodes a key photosynthetic reaction centre protein universally found in purple bacteria, was used to measure the diversity of purple bacteria in Soap Lake. Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis and subsequent phylogenetic analyses of pufMs amplified from Soap Lake water revealed that a significant diversity of purple bacteria inhabit this soda lake. Although close relatives of several of the pufM phylotypes obtained from cultured species could also be detected in Soap Lake water, several other more divergent pufM phylotypes were also detected. It is possible that Soap Lake purple bacteria are major contributors of organic matter into the ecosystem of this lake, especially in its extensive anoxic and sulfidic deep waters.