In an attempt to clarify the taxonomy of the Mycobacterium avium complex, the relationship between IS1245 RFLP, growth temperature, 16S rDNA signature sequences and the 16S-23S rDNA internally transcribed spacer (ITS) of 160 M. avium-complex isolates from different sources was investigated. All 70 isolates identified as M. avium by INNO-LiPA MYCOBACTERIA (Innogenetics, Belgium), a DNA probe test that targets the ITS, and by 16S rDNA analysis carried multiple copies of IS1245. Three isolates with multiple copies of IS1245 were identified by 16S rDNA analysis as Mycobacterium intracellulare and by LiPA as M. intracellulare (n = 1) and M. avium-intracellulare complex (n = 2). A dichotomy among the M. avium isolates was found on the basis of a C and a G signature nucleotide at position 228 of the 16S-23S rDNA spacer sequence, and this grouping was largely confirmed on the basis of similarities in IS1245 RFLPs. Strains with the characteristic three-band IS1245 'bird-type', as well as M. avium subsp. silvaticum or 'wood-pigeon' strains, invariably contained the C signature. A third characteristic that separated the M. avium bird-type isolates from M. avium isolates from humans and other mammals was growth-temperature tolerance: in contrast to bird isolates, human/porcine isolates grew at 24 and 45 degrees C. Based on differences in IS1245 RFLP, 16S-23S rDNA ITS and growth temperature, M. avium isolates originating from birds should be considered as a separate, evolutionarily conserved taxon. Because all M. avium isolates from birds are invariably of this type, the designation M. avium subsp. avium should be reserved for these bird-type strains. For clarity in the epidemiology of M. avium-related disease, isolates from humans and pigs with multibanded IS1245 RFLPs merit a separate designation. The designation 'M. avium subsp. hominissuis' is suggested for this group of bacteria.