Biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons in cold environments, including Alpine soils, is a result of indigenous cold-adapted microorganisms able to degrade these contaminants. In the present study, the prevalence of seven genotypes involved in the degradation of n-alkanes (Pseudomonas putida GPo1 alkB; Acinetobacter spp. alkM; Rhodococcus spp. alkB1, and Rhodococcus spp. alkB2), aromatic hydrocarbons (P. putida xylE), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (P. putida ndoB and Mycobacterium sp. strain PYR-1 nidA) was determined in 12 oil-contaminated (428 to 30,644 mg of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH)/kg of soil) and 8 pristine Alpine soils from Tyrol (Austria) by PCR hybridization analyses of total soil community DNA, using oligonucleotide primers and DNA probes specific for each genotype. The soils investigated were also analyzed for various physical, chemical, and microbiological parameters, and statistical correlations between all parameters were determined. Genotypes containing genes from gram-negative bacteria (P. putida alkB, xylE, and ndoB and Acinetobacter alkM) were detected to a significantly higher percentage in the contaminated (50 to 75%) than in the pristine (0 to 12.5%) soils, indicating that these organisms had been enriched in soils following contamination. There was a highly significant positive correlation (P<0.001) between the level of contamination and the number of genotypes containing genes from P. putida and Acinetobacter sp. but no significant correlation between the TPH content and the number of genotypes containing genes from gram-positive bacteria (Rhodococcus alkB1 and alkB2 and Mycobacterium nidA). These genotypes were detected at a high frequency in both contaminated (41.7 to 75%) and pristine (37.5 to 50%) soils, indicating that they are already present in substantial numbers before a contamination event. No correlation was found between the prevalence of hydrocarbon-degradative genotypes and biological activities (respiration, fluorescein diacetate hydrolysis, lipase activity) or numbers of culturable hydrocarbon-degrading soil microorganisms; there also was no correlation between the numbers of hydrocarbon degraders and the contamination level. The measured biological activities showed significant positive correlation with each other, with the organic matter content, and partially with the TPH content and a significant negative correlation with the soil dry-mass content (P<0.05 to 0.001). (c) Biosciences Information Services.