Stable isotope probing (SIP) of nucleic acids allows the detection and identification of active members of natural microbial populations that are involved in the assimilation of an isotopically labelled compound into nucleic acids. SIP is based on the separation of isotopically labelled DNA or rRNA by isopycnic density gradient centrifugation. We have developed a highly sensitive protocol for the detection of 'light' and 'heavy' nucleic acids in fractions of centrifugation gradients. It involves the fluorometric quantification of total DNA or rRNA, and the quantification of either 16S rRNA genes or 16S rRNA in gradient fractions by real-time PCR with domain-specific primers. Using this approach, we found that fully 13C-labelled DNA or rRNA of Methylobacterium extorquens was quantitatively resolved from unlabelled DNA or rRNA of Methanosarcina barkeri by cesium chloride or cesium trifluoroacetate density gradient centrifugation respectively. However, a constant low background of unspecific nucleic acids was detected in all DNA or rRNA gradient fractions, which is important for the interpretation of environmental SIP results. Consequently, quantitative analysis of gradient fractions provides a higher precision and finer resolution for retrieval of isotopically enriched nucleic acids than possible using ethidium bromide or gradient fractionation combined with fingerprinting analyses. This is a prerequisite for the fine-scale tracing of microbial populations metabolizing 13C-labelled compounds in natural ecosystems.