Eight new primer sets were designed for PCR detection of (i) mono-oxygenase and dioxygenase gene sequences involved in initial attack of bacterial aerobic BTEX degradation and of (ii) catechol 2,3-dioxygenase gene sequences responsible for meta-cleavage of the aromatic ring. The new primer sets allowed detection of the corresponding genotypes in soil with a detection limit of 10(3)-10(4) or 10(5)-10(6) gene copies g(-1) soil, assuming one copy of the gene per cell. The primer sets were used in PCR to assess the distribution of the catabolic genes in BTEX degrading bacterial strains and DNA extracts isolated from soils sampled from different locations and depths (vadose, capillary fringe and saturated zone) within a BTEX contaminated site. In both soil DNA and the isolates, tmoA-, xylM- and xylE1-like genes were the most frequently recovered BTEX catabolic genes. xylM and xylE1 were only recovered from material from the contaminated samples while tmoA was detected in material from both the contaminated and non-contaminated samples. The isolates, mainly obtained from the contaminated locations, belonged to the Actinobacteria or Proteobacteria (mainly Pseudomonas). The ability to degrade benzene was the most common BTEX degradation phenotype among them and its distribution was largely congruent with the distribution of the tmoA-like genotype. The presence of tmoA and xylM genes in phylogenetically distant strains indicated the occurrence of horizontal transfer of BTEX catabolic genes in the aquifer. Overall, these results show spatial variation in the composition of the BTEX degradation genes and hence in the type of BTEX degradation activity and pathway, at the examined site. They indicate that bacteria carrying specific pathways and primarily carrying tmoA/xylM/xylE1 genotypes, are being selected upon BTEX contamination.