A survey of the utilization by environmental micro-organisms of a range of compounds containing the carbon-phosphorus (C-P) bond was carried out. Elective culture studies indicated that 15 of 19 alkylphosphonates tested served only as a sole source of phosphorus for microbial growth. Their metabolism did not lead to the extracellular release of inorganic phosphate. However, four organophosphonates - phosphonoacetate, phosphonoalanine, 2-aminoethylphosphonate and phosphonomycin - supported microbial growth when supplied as either a phosphorus source or as a carbon and energy source, with near-quantitative inorganic phosphate release. Four of five amino alkylphosphonates tested were also utilized as a nitrogen source in the presence of 1 mmol l(-1) inorganic phosphate. In a subsequent screening programme, 99% of bacterial isolates tested were able to utilize 2-aminoethylphosphonate as a sole phosphorus source, 61% as a nitrogen source, 10% as a source of nitrogen and phosphorus, and 2% as a source of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus; 2% of isolates used phosphonoalanine as a nitrogen source. These results suggest that the uptake and metabolism of organophosphonates by bacteria is less `tightly' regulated by phosphorus starvation than has previously been supposed.