Hydrogen (H(2)) production from cheese processing wastewater via dark anaerobic fermentation was conducted using mixed microbial communities under thermophilic conditions. The effects of varying hydraulic retention time (HRT: 1, 2 and 3.5 days) and especially high organic load rates (OLR: 21, 35 and 47 g chemical oxygen demand (COD)/l/day) on biohydrogen production in a continuous stirred tank reactor were investigated. The biogas contained 5-82% (45% on average) hydrogen and the hydrogen production rate ranged from 0.3 to 7.91 H(2)/l/day (2.5 l/l/day on average). H(2) yields of 22, 15 and 5 mmol/g COD (at a constant influent COD of 40 g/l) were achieved at HRT values of 3.5, 2, and 1 days, respectively. On the other hand, H(2) yields were monitored to be 3, 9 and 6 mmol/g COD, for OLR values of 47, 35 and 21 g COD/l/day, when HRT was kept constant at I day. The total measurable volatile fatty acid concentration in the effluent (as a function of influent COD) ranged between 118 and 27,012 mg/l, which was mainly composed of acetic acid, isobutyric acid, butyric acid, propionic acid, formate and lactate. Ethanol and acetone production was also monitored from time to time. To characterize the microbial community in the bioreactor at different HRTs, DNA in mixed liquor samples was extracted immediately for PCR amplification of 16S RNA gene using eubacterial primers corresponding to 8F and 518R. The PCR product was cloned and subjected to DNA sequencing. The sequencing results were analyzed by using MegaBlast available on NCBI website which showed 99% identity to uncultured Thermoanaerobacteriaceae bacterium. (C) 2009 International Association for Hydrogen Energy. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.