Although soil-borne bacteria represent the world's greatest source of biological diversity, it is not well understood whether extreme environmental conditions, such as those found in Antarctic habitats, result in reduced soil-borne microbial diversity. To address this issue, patterns of bacterial diversity were studied in soils sampled along a > 3200 km southern polar transect spanning a gradient of increased climate severity over 27° of latitude. Vegetated and fell-field plots were sampled at the Falkland (51°S), South Georgia (54°S), Signy (60°S) and Anchorage Islands (67°S), while bare frost-sorted soil polygons were examined at Fossil Bluff (71°S), Mars Oasis (72°S), Coal Nunatak (72°S) and the Ellsworth Mountains (78°S). Bacterial 16S rRNA gene sequences were recovered subsequent to direct DNA extraction from soil, polymerase chain reaction amplification and cloning. Although bacterial diversity was observed to decline with increased latitude, habitat-specific patterns appeared to also be important. Namely, a negative relationship was found between bacterial diversity and latitude for fell-field soils, but no such pattern was observed for vegetated sites. The Mars Oasis site, previously identified as a biodiversity hotspot within this region, proved exceptional within the study transect, with unusually high bacterial diversity. In independent analyses, geographical distance and vegetation cover were found to significantly influence bacterial community composition. These results provide insight into the factors shaping the composition of bacterial communities in Antarctic terrestrial habitats and support the notion that bacterial diversity declines with increased climatic severity. © 2007 The Authors.