We describe a PCR-based assay designed to detect expression of the phosphonate assimilation gene phnD from picocyanobacteria. The phnD gene encodes the phosphonate binding protein of the ABC-type phosphonate transporter, present in many of the picocyanobacterial genome sequences. Detection of phnD expression can indicate a capacity of picoplankton to utilize phosphonates, a refractory form of phosphorus that can represent 25% of the high-molecular-weight dissolved organic phosphorus pool in marine systems. Primer sets were designed to specifically amplify phnD sequences from marine and freshwater Synechococcus spp., Prochlorococcus spp. and environmental samples from the ocean and Laurentian Great Lakes. Quantitative RT-PCR from cultured marine Synechococcus sp. strain WH8102 and freshwater Synechococcus sp. ARC-21 demonstrated induction of phnD expression in P-deficient media, suggesting that phn genes are regulated coordinately with genes under phoRB control. Last, RT-PCR of environmental RNA samples from the Sargasso Sea and Pacific Ocean detected phnD expression from the endemic picocyanobacterial population. Synechococcus spp. phnD expression yielded a depth-dependent pattern following gradients of P bioavailability. By contrast, the Prochlorococcus spp. primers revealed that in all samples tested, phnD expression was constitutive. The method described herein will allow future studies aimed at understanding the utilization of naturally occurring phoshonates in the ocean as well as monitoring the acquisition of synthetic phosphonate herbicides (e.g. glyphosate) by picocyanobacteria in freshwaters.