The beta-ketoadipate pathway is a chromosomally encoded convergent pathway for aromatic compound degradation that is widely distributed in soil bacteria and fungi. One branch converts protocatechuate, derived from phenolic compounds including p-cresol, 4-hydroxybenzoate and numerous lignin monomers, to beta-ketoadipate. The other branch converts catechol, generated from various aromatic hydrocarbons, amino aromatics, and lignin monomers, also to beta-ketoadipate. Two additional steps accomplish the conversion of beta-ketoadipate to tricarboxylic acid cycle intermediates. Enzyme studies and amino acid sequence data indicate that the pathway is highly conserved in diverse bacteria, including Pseudomonas putida, Acinetobacter calcoaceticus, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, Rhodococcus erythropolis, and many others. The catechol branch of the beta-ketoadipate pathway appears to be the evolutionary precursor for portions of the plasmid-borne ortho-pathways for chlorocatechol degradation. However, accumulating evidence points to an independent and convergent evolutionary origin for the eukaryotic beta-ketoadipate pathway. In the face of enzyme conservation, the beta-ketoadipate pathway exhibits many permutations in different bacterial groups with respect to enzyme distribution (isozymes, points of branch convergence), regulation (inducing metabolites, regulatory proteins), and gene organization. Diversity is also evident in the behavioral responses of different bacteria to beta-ketoadipate pathway-associated aromatic compounds. The presence and versatility of transport systems encoded by beta-ketoadipate pathway regulons is just beginning to be explored in various microbial groups. It appears that in the course of evolution, natural selection has caused the beta-ketoadipate pathway to assume a characteristic set of features or identity in different bacteria. Presumably such identities have been shaped to optimally serve the diverse lifestyles of bacteria.