The bacterial community composition of activated sludge from a wastewater treatment plant (Almería, Spain) with the particularity of using seawater was investigated by applying 454-pyrosequencing. The results showed that Deinococcus-Thermus, Proteobacteria, Chloroflexi and Bacteroidetes were the most abundant retrieved sequences, while other groups, such as Actinobacteria, Chlorobi, Deferribacteres, Firmicutes, Planctomycetes, Spirochaetes and Verrumicrobia were reported at lower proportions. Rarefaction analysis showed that very likely the diversity is higher than what could be described despite most of the unknown microorganisms probably correspond to rare diversity. Furthermore, the majority of taxa could not be classified at the genus level and likely represent novel members of these groups. Additionally, the nitrifiers in the sludge were characterized by pyrosequencing the amoA gene. In contrast, the nitrifying bacterial community, dominated by the genera Nitrosomonas, showed a low diversity and rarefaction curves exhibited saturation. These results suggest that only a few populations of low abundant but specialized bacteria are responsible for removal of ammonia in these saline wastewater systems. © 2013 The Authors. Microbial Biotechnology Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd and Society for Applied Microbiology.