Matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization-time of flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS) after base-specific cleavage of PCR amplified and in vitro-transcribed 16S rRNA gene (rDNA) was used for the identification of mycobacteria. Full-length 16S rDNA reference sequences of 12 type strains of Mycobacterium spp. frequently isolated from clinical specimens were determined by PCR, cloning, and sequencing. For MALDI-TOF MS-based comparative sequence analysis, mycobacterial 16S rDNA signature sequences ( approximately 500 bp) of the 12 type strains and 24 clinical isolates were PCR amplified using RNA promoter-tagged forward primers. T7 RNA polymerase-mediated transcription of forward strands in the presence of 5-methyl ribo-CTP maximized mass differences of fragments generated by base-specific cleavage. In vitro transcripts were subsequently treated with RNase T1, resulting in G-specific cleavage. Sample analysis by MALDI-TOF MS showed a specific mass signal pattern for each of the 12 type strains, allowing unambiguous identification. All 24 clinical isolates were identified unequivocally by comparing their detected mass signal pattern to the reference sequence-derived in silico pattern of the type strains and to the in silico mass patterns of published 16S rDNA sequences. A 16S rDNA microheterogeneity of the Mycobacterium xenopi type strain (DSM 43995) was detected by MALDI-TOF MS and later confirmed by Sanger dideoxy sequencing. In conclusion, analysis of 16S rDNA amplicons by MS after base-specific cleavage of RNA transcripts allowed fast and reliable identification of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex and ubiquitous mycobacteria (mycobacteria other than tuberculosis). The technology delivers an open platform for high-throughput microbial identification on the basis of any specific genotypic marker region.