Phthalate esters (PEs) are important environmental pollutants. While the biodegradation of the parent compound, phthalate (PTH), is well characterized, the biodegradation of PEs is not well understood. In particular, prior to this study, genes involved in the uptake and hydrolysis of these compounds were not conclusively identified. We found that Rhodococcus jostii RHA1 could grow on a variety of monoalkyl PEs, including methyl, butyl, hexyl, and 2-ethylhexyl PTHs. Strain RHA1 could not grow on most dialkyl PEs, but suspensions of cells grown on PTH transformed dimethyl, diethyl, dipropyl, dibutyl, dihexyl and di-(2-ethylhexyl) PTHs. The major products of these dialkyl PEs were PTH and the corresponding monoalkyl PEs, and minor products resulted from the shortening of the alkyl side chains. RHA1 exhibited an inducible, ATP-dependent uptake system for PTH with a K(m) of 22 microM. The deletion and complementation of the patB gene demonstrated that the ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporter encoded by patDABC is required for the uptake of PTH and monoalkyl PEs by RHA1. The hydrolase encoded by patE of RHA1 was expressed in Escherichia coli. PatE specifically hydrolyzed monoalkyl PEs to PTH but did not transform dialkyl PEs or other aromatic esters. This investigation of RHA1 elucidates key processes that are consistent with the environmental fate of PEs.