Two spectrophotometric assays have been developed to monitor breakdown of the lignin component of plant lignocellulose: a continuous fluorescent assay involving fluorescently modified lignin, and a UV-vis assay involving chemically nitrated lignin. These assays have been used to analyse lignin degradation activity in bacterial and fungal lignin degraders, and to identify additional soil bacteria that show activity for lignin degradation. Two soil bacteria known to act as aromatic degraders, Pseudomonas putida and Rhodococcus sp. RHA1, consistently showed activity in these assays, and these strains were shown in a small scale experiment to breakdown lignocellulose, producing a number of monocyclic phenolic products. Using milled wood lignin prepared from wheat straw, pine, and miscanthus, some bacterial lignin degraders were found to show specificity for lignin type. These assays could be used to identify novel lignin degraders for breakdown of plant lignocellulose.