Identification of mycobacteria from BACTEC 12B cultures is achieved in 7 to 21 days by reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) using a UV spectrophotometer to detect nonpolar p-bromophenylacyl mycolic acid derivatives. However, cultures grown in BACTEC and other liquid media seldom contain sufficient mycolic acids to permit reliable identification under usual HPLC assay conditions, so the sample size must be increased. Unfortunately, samples prepared from cultures in liquid media such as BACTEC cultures also contain large amounts of extraneous polar and strongly nonpolar contaminants that interfere with the analysis and hasten deterioration of the HPLC column. The contaminants were removed from 10 samples simultaneously by solid-phase extraction (SPE), i.e., by passing the crude suspension containing the mycolic acid derivatives into disposable 500-mg tC18 SPE columns in place of the usual final filtration step used to prepare specimens for HPLC. Fifteen milliliters of 20% (vol/vol) dichloromethane in methanol was passed through the columns (< 3 ml/min) to wash through the undesired contaminants and bind the mycolic acid derivatives. The mycolates were quantitatively eluted in 3 ml of dichloromethane for analysis by HPLC. Treating a panel of 31 strains of frequently isolated mycobacteria by SPE reduced the content of contaminants by 89.3 to 99.9% without altering the chromatographic patterns compared with the same strains grown on conventional solid media and processed without SPE. Peak heights of mycolates prepared from BACTEC cultures were increased from < or = 6 to > or = 25 absorbance milliunits with SPE, sufficient for reliable interpretation by visual inspection of chromatograms obtained with a UV detector. Also, removal of the contaminants improved column longevity.