Phosphonoacetate is regarded as an antiviral xenobiotic whose mineralization can be catalysed by an enzyme, phosphonoacetate hydrolase, encoded by the phnA gene. To date the enzyme's activity has been detected in only a limited number of bacteria. Its expression has been shown to occur in a manner independent of the phosphate status of the cell, in direct contrast to the general rule of organophosphonate metabolism being under the control of the pho regulon. In this study the environmental occurrence of the phnA gene was evaluated by polymerase chain reaction amplification of DNA extracts obtained directly from various soil environments. Sensitivity of this method was improved such that a positive result was routinely obtained with soil spiked with as few as 6 colony-forming units (cfu) per gram of soil of Pseudomonas fluorescens 23F (phnA(+)). When total DNA from a variety of Northern Irish, Greek and Bolivian soils was tested, all were positive for phnA. Bacteria capable of utilizing phosphonoacetate as sole carbon, energy and phosphorus source, with the release of essentially equimolar concentrations of phosphate to the culture supernatant, were isolated from all soil samples tested. Analysis of three such isolates revealed all to be species of Pseudomonas sensu stricto, possessing phosphonoacetate hydrolase activity in cell-free extracts. Sequence determination of the phnA gene revealed a similarity of the putative protein sequences at levels of 98.3-99.3% between the Pseudomonas strains. This is the first study to use molecular methods to investigate the distribution of a gene encoding organophosphonate metabolism, and indicates that the phnA gene is ubiquitous within soils from geographically distinct regions. Such an observation supports the proposition that phosphonoacetate is a compound that may also have a biogenic origin.