Use of PCR in the field of molecular diagnostics has increased to the point where it is now accepted as the standard method for detecting nucleic acids from a number of sample and microbial types. However, conventional PCR was already an essential tool in the research laboratory. Real-time PCR has catalysed wider acceptance of PCR because it is more rapid, sensitive and reproducible, while the risk of carryover contamination is minimised. There is an increasing number of chemistries which are used to detect PCR products as they accumulate within a closed reaction vessel during real-time PCR. These include the non-specific DNA-binding fluorophores and the specific, fluorophore-labelled oligonucleotide probes, some of which will be discussed in detail. It is not only the technology that has changed with the introduction of real-time PCR. Accompanying changes have occurred in the traditional terminology of PCR, and these changes will be highlighted as they occur. Factors that have restricted the development of multiplex real-time PCR, as well as the role of real-time PCR in the quantitation and genotyping of the microbial causes of infectious disease, will also be discussed. Because the amplification hardware and the fluorogenic detection chemistries have evolved rapidly, this review aims to update the scientist on the current state of the art. Additionally, the advantages, limitations and general background of real-time PCR technology will be reviewed in the context of the microbiology laboratory.