Characterization of isolates of Neisseria meningitidis obtained from patients with meningococcal disease or from pharyngeal swabs of asymptomatic carriers can be achieved by several approaches which provide different levels of discrimination. A total of 45 gram negative, oxidase-positive diplococcus strains isolated from 15 individuals with meningococcal disease and 30 of their family contacts were examined by three approaches: serological typing, multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE), and multilocus sequence typing (MLST). For 10 of the 15 patient and contact groups, all of the isolates were confirmed as meningococci, and the bacteria obtained from the patients and contacts, including their mother or principal caregiver in the case of children, were indistinguishable by all three methods. In the remaining five groups the isolates from the patients were distinct from those recovered from the contacts, and in three examples, in two separate groups, the contacts were shown by MLST to be carrying strains of Neisseria lactamica. The data obtained from the three techniques were consistent, although complete serological typing was possible for only a minority of isolates. Both MLEE and MLST established the genetic relationships of the isolates and identified members of known hypervirulent lineages, but MLST was faster than MLEE and had the additional advantages that it could be performed on noninfective material distributed by mail and that the results from different laboratories could be compared via the internet (http://mlst.zoo.ox.ac.uk).