Current clinical assays for determining antibiotic susceptibility in Mycobacterium tuberculosis require many weeks to complete due to the slow growth of the bacilli. Here we demonstrate an extremely sensitive single-tube PCR assay that takes less than 3 h and reliably identifies rifampin-resistant M. tuberculosis in DNA extracted directly from sputum. Ninety-five percent of mutations associated with rifampin resistance occur in an 81-bp core region of the bacterial RNA polymerase gene, rpoB. All mutations that occur within this region result in rifampin resistance. The assay uses novel nucleic acid hybridization probes called molecular beacons. Five different probes are used in the same reaction, each perfectly complementary to a different target sequence within the rpoB gene of rifampin-susceptible bacilli and each labeled with a differently colored fluorophore. Together, their target sequences encompass the entire core region. The generation of all five fluorescent colors during PCR amplification indicates that rifampin-susceptible M. tuberculosis is present. The presence of any mutation in the core region prevents the binding of one of the molecular beacons, resulting in the absence of one of the five fluorescent colors. When 148 M. tuberculosis clinical isolates of known susceptibility to rifampin were tested, mutations associated with rifampin resistance were detected in 63 of the 65 rifampin-resistant isolates, and no mutations were found in any of the 83 rifampin-susceptible isolates. When DNA extracted directly from the sputum of 11 patients infected with rifampin-resistant tuberculosis was tested, mutations were detected in all of the samples. The use of this rapid assay should enable early detection and treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis in clinical settings.