Developments in molecular biology based techniques have led to rapid and reliable tools to characterize microbial community structures and to monitor their dynamics under in situ conditions. However, there has been a distinct lack of emphasis on monitoring the functional diversity in the environment. Genes encoding catechol 2,3-dioxygenases (C23O), as key enzymes of various aerobic aromatic degradation pathways, were used as functional targets to assess the catabolic gene diversity in differentially BTEX contaminated environments by polymerase chain reaction-single-strand conformation polymorphism (PCR-SSCP). Site specific PCR-SSCP fingerprints were obtained, showing that gene diversity experienced shifts correlated to temporal changes and levels of contamination. PCR-SSCP enabled the recovery of predominant gene polymorphs, and results closely matched with the information retrieved from random sequencing of PCR-DNA clone libraries. A new method for isolating strains capable of growing on BTEX compounds was developed to diminish preselection or enrichment bias and to assess the function of predominant gene polymorphs. C23O abundance in isolates correlated with the levels of BTEX pollution in the soil samples analysed. Isolates harbouring C23O genes, identical to the gene polymorph predominant in all contaminated sites analysed, showed an unexpected benzene but not toluene mineralizing phenotype whereas isolates harbouring a C23O gene variant differing by a single point mutation and observed in highly polluted sites only, were capable, among some other isolates, to mineralize benzene and toluene, indicating a catabolically determined sharing of carbon sources on-site. The PCR-SSCP technique is thus a powerful tool for assessing the diversity of functional genes and the identification of predominant gene polymorphs in environmental samples as a prerequisite to understand the functioning of microbial communities.