The last few decades have seen a steady increase in the global production and utilisation of the alkenylbenzene, styrene. The compound is of major importance in the petrochemical and polymer-processing industries, which can contribute to the pollution of natural resources via the release of styrene-contaminated effluents and off-gases. This is a cause for some concern as human over-exposure to styrene, and/or its early catabolic intermediates, can have a range of destructive health effects. These features have prompted researchers to investigate routes of styrene degradation in microorganisms, given the potential application of these organisms in bioremediation/biodegradation strategies. This review aims to examine the recent advances which have been made in elucidating the underlying biochemistry, genetics and physiology of microbial styrene catabolism, identifying areas of interest for the future and highlighting the potential industrial importance of individual catabolic pathway enzymes. (C) 2002 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.