By using a set of four nested oligonucleotide primers, a two-step polymerase chain reaction assay for the detection and identification of Mycobacterium leprae that does not require the use of radioactivity labeled hybridization probes was developed. The nested-primer procedure amplified a 347-base-pair product from M. leprae genomic DNA. No amplification products were produced from DNAs of 19 other Mycobacterium species, 19 non-Mycobacterium species, mouse cells, or human cells. Minor amplification products were observed with three additional Mycobacterium species, i.e., "M. lufu", M. simiae, and M. smegmatis. These products were easily distinguished from the M. leprae product by size and restriction enzyme cleavage patterns. The assay could amplify the 347-base-pair product from samples containing as little as 3 fg of M. leprae genomic DNA--the amount of DNA in a single bacillus. The assay also amplified target sequences in crude lysates of M. leprae bacilli isolated from tissue biopsy specimens from infected animals and humans. The entire assay, from sample preparation to data analysis, can be completed in less than 8 h.