The cause of sarcoidosis is unknown. However, the histological similarity between the disorder and tuberculosis suggests that mycobacteria might contribute to the pathogenesis of sarcoidosis. We have used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect mycobacterial DNA in clinical samples from patients with sarcoidosis. 104 patients were included in the study (62 referred for possible tuberculosis and 20 for possible sarcoidosis, and 22 control patients who had undergone bronchoscopy for other reasons). Bronchoalveolar lavage samples, bronchial washings, and tissue specimens (1 from each patient) underwent assay by PCR as well as bacteriological, histological, and cytological examination. We used two PCR reactions: in the first the complex-specific insertion sequence IS986/IS6110 was used to specifically detect DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex bacteria; in the second, conserved sequences of the mycobacterial groEL gene were used to detect DNA from mycobacteria other than M tuberculosis. The PCR was more sensitive than culture for diagnosis of tuberculosis. However, the false-positive PCR rate for M tuberculosis was 9%. M tuberculosis DNA was found in half the sarcoidosis patients, and non-tuberculosis mycobacterial DNA in a further 20%. The findings that a significant proportion of the sarcoidosis patients in this study have mycobacteria in their lungs and that most of these mycobacteria belong to M tuberculosis complex suggest an aetiological role for mycobacteria in sarcoidosis.