For many ecological studies of cyanobacteria, it is essential that closely related species or strains can be discriminated. Since this is often not possible by using morphological features, cyanobacteria are frequently studied by using DNA-based methods. A powerful method for analysis of the diversity and dynamics of microbial populations and for checking the purity and affiliation of cultivated strains is denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE). We realized high-resolution discrimination of a variety of cyanobacteria by means of DGGE analysis of sections of the internal transcribed spacer between the 16S and 23S rRNA genes (rRNA-ITS). A forward primer specific for cyanobacteria, targeted at the 3' end of the 16S rRNA gene, was designed. The combination of this primer and three different reverse primers targeted to the rRNA-ITS or to the 23S rRNA gene yielded PCR products of different sizes from cultures of all 16 cyanobacterial genera that were tested but not from other bacteria. DGGE profiles produced from the shortest section of rRNA-ITS consisted of one band for all but one cyanobacterial genera, and those generated from longer stretches of rRNA-ITS yielded DGGE profiles containing one to four bands. The suitability of DGGE for detecting intrageneric and intraspecific variation was tested by using strains of the genus Microcystis: Many strains could be discriminated by means of rRNA-ITS DGGE, and the resolution of this method was strikingly higher than that obtained with previously described methods. The applicability of the developed DGGE assays for analysis of cyanobacteria in field samples was demonstrated by using samples from freshwater lakes. The advantages and disadvantages associated with the use of each developed primer set are discussed.