Horizontal gene transfer in the Bacteria has been demonstrated to occur under natural conditions. The ecological impact of gene transfer events depends on the new genetic material being expressed in recipient organisms, and on natural selection processes operating on these recipients. The phylogenetic distribution of cbaAB genes for chlorobenzoate 3,4-(4,5)-dioxygenase, which are carried within Tn5271 on the IncP beta plasmid pBRC60, was investigated using isolates from freshwater microcosms and from the Niagara River watershed. The latter included isolates from surface water, groundwater and bioremediation reactor samples. The cbaAB genes have become integrated, through interspecific transfer, primarily into species of the beta Proteobacteria (44/48 isolates). Only four isolates, identified as Pseudomonas fluorescens (3/48) and Xanthomonas maltophilia (1/48), belonged to the gamma Proteobacteria, despite the observation that pBRC60 was capable of mobilizing these genes into a wide range of beta and gamma Proteobacteria in the laboratory. The natural host range correlated with the distribution of the meta-ring-fission pathway for metabolism of protocatechuates formed when the cbaAB genes were expressed (45/48 isolates). We proposed the hypothesis that natural selection has favoured recipients that successfully integrate the activity of the transferred dioxygenase with the conserved meta ring-fission pathway. The hypothesis was tested by transferring a plasmid construct containing the cbaAB genes into type strains representative of the beta and gamma Proteobacteria. The concept of applying mobile catabolic genes to probe the phylogenetic distribution of compatible degradative pathways is discussed.