Variability in pathogenicity of Flavobacterium columnare makes disease treatment difficult because there is currently no way to easily recognize those strains that warrant aggressive treatments. In order to identify suitable virulence markers, 17 isolates of F. columnare were cultured from six different fish species. The DNA from all isolates was analysed using random amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD). Bootstrap analysis of the RAPD data produced a tree with three major groups supported by bootstrap scores of 80-100%. Virulence of the isolates was determined by bath exposure of channel catfish, Ictaluruspunctatus (Rafinesque), and golden shiners, Notemigonus crysoleucas (Mitchill), to broth cultures of F. columnare. In channel catfish, 13 of 17 isolates produced 100% mortality within 48 h post-exposure. All isolates of cyprinid fish origin clustered in a single RAPD group. At least two of the four isolates that were not virulent in channel catfish were of cyprinid fish origin. There was a wide variation in cell morphology between isolates with lengths of cells or cell chains ranging from 3 to 11 microm, even under identical culture conditions. Most of the shorter or single cell isolates fell into a single RAPD group. No clear association was identified between virulence and any other characteristic, including RAPD group.