The effectiveness of an aerobic, anoxic/anaerobic strategy for maintaining the activity of activated sludge performing biological nitrogen and phosphorus removal during long-term starvation is investigated. A lab-scale sequencing batch reactor (SBR) treating abattoir wastewater and achieving high-levels (>95%) of nitrogen, phosphorus and COD removal was used. The reactor was put twice into a so-called "sleeping mode" for a period of 5-6 weeks when the abattoir, where the wastewater was sourced, was closed down for annual maintenance. The "sleeping mode" operation consisted of 15 min aeration in a 6 h SBR cycle. The sludge was allowed to settle in the remaining time of the cycle. The decay rates for ammonia oxidising bacteria (AOB) and nitrite oxidising bacteria (NOB) were determined to be 0.017 and 0.004 d(-1), respectively These decay rates correlated well with AOB and NOB population quantified using molecular techniques (FISH). There was negligible phosphate accumulation in the reactor during the first 1-2 weeks of starvation, which was followed by a linear net release of phosphate in the remaining 4-5 weeks at a very slow rate of 1-2 mgP gVSS(-1) d(-1). A sudden decrease in the aerobic activities of polyphosphate accumulating organisms (PAOs), observed via anaerobic/aerobic batch tests, occurred after 2 weeks of starvation. This correlated with a dramatic increase of several metal ions in the liquid phase. The underlying reasons are not clear. A resuscitation period with a gradual increase of the wastewater load was applied during the re-startup of the reactor after both "sleeping mode" periods. Each time, the performance of the reactor in terms of nitrogen and phosphorus removal fully recovered in 4 days. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.