Several 2-substituted benzoates (including 2-trifluoromethyl-, 2-chloro-, 2-bromo-, 2-iodo-, 2-nitro-, 2-methoxy-, and 2-acetyl-benzoates) were converted by phthalate-grown Arthrobacter keyseri (formerly Micrococcus sp.) 12B to the corresponding 2-substituted 3,4-dihydroxybenzoates (protocatechuates). Because these products lack a carboxyl group at the 2 position, they were not substrates for the next enzyme of the phthalate catabolic pathway, 3,4-dihydroxyphthalate 2-decarboxylase, and accumulated. When these incubations were carried out in iron-containing minimal medium, the products formed colored chelates. This chromogenic response was subsequently used to identify recombinant Escherichia coli strains carrying genes encoding the responsible enzymes, phthalate 3,4-dioxygenase and 3,4-dihydroxy-3,4-dihydrophthalate dehydrogenase, from the 130-kbp plasmid pRE1 of strain 12B. Beginning with the initially cloned 8.14-kbp PstI fragment of pRE824 as a probe to identify recombinant plasmids carrying overlapping fragments, a DNA segment of 33.5 kbp was cloned from pRE1 on several plasmids and mapped using restriction endonucleases. From these plasmids, the sequence of 26,274 contiguous bp was determined. Sequenced DNA included several genetic units: tnpR, pcm operon, ptr genes, pehA, norA fragment, and pht operon, encoding a transposon resolvase, catabolism of protocatechuate (3,4-dihydroxybenzoate), a putative ATP-binding cassette transporter, a possible phthalate ester hydrolase, a fragment of a norfloxacin resistance-like transporter, and the conversion of phthalate to protocatechuate, respectively. Activities of the eight enzymes involved in the catabolism of phthalate through protocatechuate to pyruvate and oxaloacetate were demonstrated in cells or cell extracts of recombinant E. coli strains.