© 2015, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. Laccase enzymes produced by both soil bacteria and fungi play important roles in refractory organic matter turnover in terrestrial ecosystems. We investigated the abundance and diversity of fungal laccase genes and bacterial laccase-like genes in soil from subtropical arable lands, and identified which microbial group was associated with laccase activity. Compared with fungal laccase genes, the bacterial laccase-like genes had greater abundance, richness and Shannon–Wiener diversity. More importantly, laccase activity can be explained almost exclusively by the bacterial laccase-like genes, and their abundance had significant linear relationship with laccase activity. Thus, bacterial laccase-like gene has great potential to be used as a sensitive indicator of laccase enzyme for refractory organic matter turnover in subtropical arable lands.