The microbial populations in PCB-contaminated electric power substation capacitor bank soil (TVA soil) and from another PCB-contaminated site (New England soil) were compared to determine their potential to degrade PCB. Known biphenyl operon genes were used as gene probes in colony hybridizations and in dot blots of DNA extracted from the soil to monitor the presence of PCB-degrading organisms in the soils. The microbial populations in the two soils differed in that the population in New England soil was enriched by the addition of 1000 p.p.m. 2-chlorobiphenyl (2-CB) whereas the population in the TVA capacitor bank soil was not affected. PCB degradative activity in the New England soil was indicated by a 50% PCB disappearance (gas chromatography), accumulation of chlorobenzoates (HPLC), and 14CO2 evolution from 14C-2CB. The PCB-degrading bacteria in the New England soil could be identified by their positive hybridization to the bph gene probes, their ability to produce the yellow meta-cleavage product from 2,3-dihydroxybiphenyl (2,3-DHB), and the degradation of specific PCB congeners by individual isolates in resting cell assays. Although the TVA capacitor bank soil lacked effective PCB-degrading populations, addition of a PCB-degrading organism and 10,000 p.p.m. biphenyl resulted in a > 50% reduction of PCB levels. Molecular characterization of soil microbial populations in laboratory scale treatments is expected to be valuable in the design of process monitoring and performance verification approaches for full scale bioremediation.