The diversity of bacteria isolated from creosote- contaminated soils in the United States, Norway, and Germany was determined by comparing their ability to degrade polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), their phospholipid ester-linked fatty acid (GC-FAME) profiles, sole carbon source utilization patterns (Biolog assays), and 16S rRNA sequences. Bacteria were initially obtained by enrichment with phenanthrene and fluoranthene. Many were capable of degrading a broad range of the PAHs found in creosote. Phenanthrene- or fluoranthene-degraders were abundant in most of the soils tested. Several of the fluoranthene-degrading isolates clustered with Sphingomonas (formerly Pseudomonas) paucimobilis strain EPA505 in the GC-FAME and Biolog analyses and three of the isolates examined by 16S rRNA sequence comparisons showed a close relationship with Sphingomonas. In addition, the Sphingomonas strains showed the most extensive degradation of 4- & 5-ring PAHs in creosote. Burkholderia cepacia strains isolated on phenanthrene from PAH-contaminated soils had limited ability to attack higher molecular weight PAHs either individually or in creosote. Thus, degradation capabilities appeared to be associated with members of certain taxa, independent of the origin of the soils from which the bacteria were isolated.