Small-subunit ribosomal DNA (SSU rDNA) from 20 phenotypically distinct strains of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D)-degrading bacteria was partially sequenced, yielding 18 unique strains belonging to members of the alpha, beta, and gamma subgroups of the class Proteobacteria. To understand the origin of 2,4-D degradation in this diverse collection, the first gene in the 2,4-D pathway, tfdA, was sequenced. The sequences fell into three unique classes found in various members of the beta and gamma subgroups of Proteobacteria. None of the alpha-Proteobacteria yielded tfdA PCR products. A comparison of the dendrogram of the tfdA genes with that of the SSU rDNA genes demonstrated incongruency in phylogenies, and hence 2,4-D degradation must have originated from gene transfer between species. Only those strains with tfdA sequences highly similar to the tfdA sequence of strain JMP134 (tfdA class I) transferred all the 2,4-D genes and conferred the 2,4-D degradation phenotype to a Burkholderia cepacia recipient.