We describe a new method for studying the structure and diversity of bacterial communities in the natural ecosystem. Our approach is based on single-strand-conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis of PCR products of 16S rRNA genes from complex bacterial populations. A pair of eubacterial universal primers for amplification of the variable V3 region were designed from the 16S rRNA sequences of 1,262 bacterial strains. The PCR conditions were optimized by using genomic DNAs from five gram-positive and seven gram-negative strains. The SSCP analysis of the PCR products demonstrated that a bacterial strain generated its characteristic band pattern and that other strains generated other band patterns, so that the relative diversity in bacterial communities could be measured. In addition, this method was sensitive enough to detect a bacterial population that made up less than 1.5% of a bacterial community. The distinctive differences between bacterial populations were observed in an oligotrophic lake and a eutrophic pond in a field study. The method presented here, using combined PCR amplification and SSCP pattern analyses of 16S rRNA genes, provides a useful tool to study bacterial community structures in various ecosystems.