A wide variety of compounds can be biodegraded via reductive removal of halogen substituents. This process can degrade toxic pollutants, some of which are not known to be biodegraded by any other means. Reductive dehalogenation of aromatic compounds has been found primarily in undefined, syntrophic anaerobic communities. We discuss ecological and physiological principles which appear to be important in these communities and evaluate how widely applicable these principles are. Anaerobic communities that catalyze reductive dehalogenation appear to differ in many respects. A large number of pure cultures which catalyze reductive dehalogenation of aliphatic compounds are known, in contrast to only a few organisms which catalyze reductive dehalogenation of aromatic compounds. Desulfomonile tiedjei DCB-1 is an anaerobe which dehalogenates aromatic compounds and is physiologically and morphologically unusual in a number of respects, including the ability to exploit reductive dehalogenation for energy metabolism. When possible, we use D. tiedjei as a model to understand dehalogenating organisms in the above-mentioned undefined systems. Aerobes use reductive dehalogenation for substrates which are resistant to known mechanisms of oxidative attack. Reductive dehalogenation, especially of aliphatic compounds, has recently been found in cell-free systems. These systems give us an insight into how and why microorganisms catalyze this activity. In some cases transition metal complexes serve as catalysts, whereas in other cases, particularly with aromatic substrates, the catalysts appear to be enzymes.