OBJECTIVE: To determine the nature (clonal type and antibiotic resistance pattern) of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains recovered from the largest teaching hospital in Portugal and to detect temporal trends in clonal types during three consecutive surveillance periods in 1992--93, 1994--95 and 1996. METHODS: MRSA strains were characterized by chromosomal SmaI macrorestriction patterns using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and by DNA fingerprints---applied to ClaI digests---capable of probing two specific areas of the staphylococcal chromosome: (1) the vicinity of the mecA gene, and (2) the attachment site(s) and copy number of transposon Tn554. The combination of these methods can generate 'clonal types' useful for epidemiological tracking of MRSA strains. RESULTS: During the 1992--93 collection period, 65% of MRSA strains carried the mecA polymorph I, Tn554 pattern E and PFGE pattern A (I::E::A)---a clonal type that was used to define the 'Iberian MRSA', which is widely spread throughout southern Europe. The representation of this clone decreased to 42% in 1994--95 and to 20% in 1996. At the same time, a second multiresistant MRSA strain carrying mecA polymorph XI, Tn554 type B and PFGE pattern B (XI::B::B)---a clonal type characteristic of the so-called 'Brazilian MRSA'---increased from 5% in 1992--93 to 36% in 1994--95 and 29% in 1996. CONCLUSIONS: Throughout the four years of surveillance, the Iberian and Brazilian MRSA types and their single subtype variants together have been responsible for the overwhelming majority (close to 90%) of all MRSA infections in the largest teaching hospital of Portugal. The mechanism of epidemicity of these two multiresistant international MRSA clones remains to be elucidated.