The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans reproduces predominantly as a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite, and this drives laboratory populations to be homozygous at all genetic loci. Passaging of stocks can lead to fixation of spontaneous mutations, especially when the latter do not result in a selective disadvantage under laboratory conditions. Life span may be such a trait, since a comparison of six wild-type N2 lines derived from a common ancestor (but maintained separately in several laboratories) revealed four variants with median adult life spans ranging from 12.0 +/- 0.8 to 17.0 +/- 0.6 days at 20 degrees C. Fertility was also reduced in the two shortest-lived strains. We determined which life span most closely corresponds to that of the authentic wild type by two means. Firstly, N2 hermaphrodites were compared with seven C. elegans wild isolates. The latter were found to resemble only the longest-lived N2 strain. Comparison of male life spans of six lines also revealed additional strain variation. Secondly, life spans of F1 progeny issuing from crosses between N2 variants showed that short life spans were recessive, indicating that they result from loss-of-function mutations. We infer that the longest-lived N2 variant best resembles the original N2 isolate. This is the N2 male stock currently distributed by the Caenorhabditis Genetics Center.