An extensive outbreak in a hospital on the south coast of England in 2000, involving a multi-resistant strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) phenotypically similar to a strain periodically seen in several hospitals in that region since 1996, prompted a study to characterize the strain and determine the extent of its spread. Sixty-nine isolates with related phage patterns obtained between 1997 and 2000 from 19 hospitals were selected for study. Of these, 55 isolates had an identical PFGE profile (designated F1), and eight shared five other PFGE profiles (designated F2-F6), which differed from that of F1 by no more than three bands and were considered related. Six isolates had PFGE profiles that differed from F1-F6 by 9-18 bands and were considered to be distinct strains. The 63 isolates of profiles F1-F6 were considered to comprise a single strain and were phenotypically identical, being urease positive and resistant to multiple antibiotics including methicillin, ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, fusidic acid, rifampicin, gentamicin, kanamycin, neomycin, streptomycin and tetracycline, with or without high- or low-level mupirocin resistance. Borderline resistance to teicoplanin was also commonly noted. All but one of these 63 isolates contained the gene sea, with five also carrying the genes seg and sei, and two carrying tst. The isolates of this strain had been referred from 13 different hospitals, seven of which were on or near the south coast, four from London, one from the Midlands and one from the north of England. The isolates were thus considered to comprise an epidemic MRSA (EMRSA) strain, which has been designated EMRSA-17. The six non-EMRSA-17 isolates identified in the study were sensitive to fusidic acid and rifampicin, and came from six geographically diverse hospitals including three in Northern Ireland.