Two pairs of expanded granular sludge bed (EGSB) bioreactors, R1/R2 and R3/R4, were designed. R1/R2 were used for mesophilic (37 degrees C) treatment of synthetic wastewater over a 100-day trial. A successful start-up was achieved by R1 and R2, with COD removal over 90%. Both reactors were operated under identical parameters; however, increased organic loading induced a reduction in COD removal by R1, while R2 maintained satisfactory performance throughout the experiment. R3/R4 were operated at 15 degrees C throughout a 422-day trial and were used for the stabilisation of volatile fatty acid-based wastewater. Phenol was introduced to R4 at an applied loading rate of 1 kg phenol m(-3) d(-1), which was increased to 2 kg phenol m(-3) d(-1). No phenol was supplied to R3. Efficient COD conversion was recorded in both R3 and R4, thus demonstrating the feasibility of high-rate phenol degradation under psychrophilic conditions. Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis was applied to the characterisation of microbial community dynamics within each of the reactors. The results indicated a microbiological basis for the deviation, in terms of operational performance, of R1 and R2. TRFLP analyses indicated stable microbial communities in R3 and R4, but detected changes in the abundance of specific ribotypes in response to phenol mineralisation.