We have investigated genetic differences between the closely related pathogenic Neisseria species, Neisseria meningitidis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae, as a novel approach to the elucidation of the genetic basis for their different pathogenicities. N. meningitidis is a major cause of cerebrospinal meningitis, whereas N. gonorrhoeae is the agent of gonorrhoea. The technique of representational difference analysis was adapted to the search for genes present in the meningococcus but absent from the gonococcus. The libraries achieved are comprehensive and specific in that they contain sequences corresponding to the presently identified meningococcus-specific genes (capsule, frp, rotamase, and opc) but lack genes more or less homologous between the two species, e.g., ppk and pilC1. Of 35 randomly chosen clones specific to N. meningitidis, DNA sequence analysis has confirmed that the large majority have no homology with published neisserial sequences. Mapping of the cloned DNA fragments onto the chromosome of N. meningitidis strain Z2491 has revealed a nonrandom distribution of meningococcus-specific sequences. Most of the genetic differences between the meningococcus and gonococcus appear to be clustered in three distinct regions, one of which (region 1) contains the capsule-related genes. Region 3 was found only in strains of serogroup A, whereas region 2 is present in a variety of meningococci belonging to different serogroups. At a time when bacterial genomes are being sequenced, we believe that this technique is a powerful tool for a rapid and directed analysis of the genetic basis of inter- or intraspecific phenotypic variations.