The objective of this study was to characterize the community structure and activity of N2-fixing microorganisms in mature and poorly developed biological soil crusts from both the Colorado Plateau and Chihuahuan Desert. Nitrogenase activity was approximately 10 and 2.5 times higher in mature crusts than in poorly developed crusts at the Colorado Plateau site and Chihuahuan Desert site, respectively. Analysis of nifH sequences by clone sequencing and the terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism technique indicated that the crust diazotrophic community was 80 to 90% heterocystous cyanobacteria most closely related to Nostoc spp. and that the composition of N2-fixing species did not vary significantly between the poorly developed and mature crusts at either site. In contrast, the abundance of nifH sequences was approximately 7.5 times greater (per microgram of total DNA) in mature crusts than in poorly developed crusts at a given site as measured by quantitative PCR. 16S rRNA gene clone sequencing and microscopic analysis of the cyanobacterial community within both crust types demonstrated a transition from a Microcoleus vaginatus-dominated, poorly developed crust to mature crusts harboring a greater percentage of Nostoc and Scytonema spp. We hypothesize that ecological factors, such as soil instability and water stress, may constrain the growth of N2-fixing microorganisms at our study sites and that the transition to a mature, nitrogen-producing crust initially requires bioengineering of the surface microenvironment by Microcoleus vaginatus.