There have been numerous instances reported when potentially recalcitrant compounds have been modified by microorganisms or completely mineralized by mixed communities or organisms; an example is pesticide biodegradation. Both situations rely upon the ability of microorganisms to transform compounds that they cannot utilize as sole sources of carbon and energy. This phenomenon of co-oxidation or co-metabolism has been fraught with confusion for many years as a result of the ambiguous use of terms and definitions. A redefinition of co-metabolism is proposed in an attempt to alleviate the problem: Co-metabolism--the transformation of a non-growth substrate in the obligate presence of a growth substrate or another transformable compound. The term 'non-growth substrate' describes compounds that are unable to support cell replication as opposed to an increase in biomass. This definition was devised primarily as a result of non-growth substrate metabolism studies with methane-utilizing bacteria. These studies are described in the text. The possible impact of endogenous polymer reserves on co-metabolic events is discussed. A number of examples where non-growth substrate metabolism is of environmental importance are presented, in particular the potential role of methane-oxidizing bacteria in the removal of CO from the environment. The evolutionary significance, if any, of fortuitous metabolism or co-metabolism is discussed, as are potential applications of these phenomena.