Recent studies on the biodegradation phthalate esters in natural ecosystems, sewage, and laboratory cultures are reviewed. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that bacteria are major elements in the biodegradative processes and that in most situations complete oxidation of the aromatic ring occurs; much less is known about the catabolism of the alcoholic moiety, e.g., 2-ethylhexanol. Evidence is presented to support catabolic pathways in pseudomonads and micrococci that are initiated by successive hydrolyses of the diesters to give the phthalate anion. Thereafter a dioxygenase catalyzes the formation of 4,5-dihydro-4,5-dihydroxyphthalate, which is oxidized by an NAD-dependent dehydrogenase to give 4,5-dihydroxyphthalate, Protocatechuate, formed by decarboxylation of 4,5-dihydroxyphthalate, is the substrate for ring cleavage enzymes. Whereas flurorescent pseudomonads use the beta-ketoadipate pathway, the nonfluorescent strains and micrococci examined use of meta-cleavage (4,5-) route. All the intermediates proposed have been accumulated by enzymes purified from Pseudomonas fluorescens. Isophthalate and terephthalate (anions) are readily used as carbon sources by aerobic bacteria, and preliminary evidence is consistent with catabolic routes for these isomers converging at the ring-cleavage substrate protocatechuate. Some possible effects and interactions of synthetic organic chemicals with the natural microflora, and the influence of other vectors, is discussed in relation to the maintenance of the carbon cycle and environmental pollution.