Winogradsky discovered in 1890 that nitrification is carried out in two consecutive steps by two distinct groups of bacteria: ammonia-oxidizing bacteria and nitrite-oxidizing bacteria. An explanation for this division of labour is offered based on the kinetic theory of optimal design of metabolic pathways, which postulates the existence of an optimal length for a pathway that maximizes the rate of ATP production. Shortening long pathways could, therefore, increase growth rate. However, this would reduce growth yield if the shorter pathway has fewer ATP-generating steps. High yields would be advantageous when bacteria grow in clonal clusters, as is typical for biofilms. It is postulated that bacteria that completely oxidize ammonia to nitrate exist in such environments. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.