Delayed gate fluorescence detection of dipicolinic acid (DPA), a universal and specific component of bacterial spores, has been appraised for use in a rapid analytical method for the detection of low concentrations of bacterial spores. DPA was assayed by fluorimetric detection of its chelates with lanthanide metals. The influence of the choice and concentration of lanthanide and buffer ions on the fluorescence assay was studied as well as the effects of pH and temperature. The optimal system quantified the fluorescence of terbium monodipicolinate in a solution of 10 microM terbium chloride buffered with 1 M sodium acetate, pH 5.6 and had a detection limit of 2 nM DPA. This assay allowed the first real-time monitoring of the germination of bacterial spores by continuously quantifying exuded DPA. A detection limit of 10(4) Bacillus subtilis spores ml-1 was reached, representing a substantial improvement over previous rapid tests.