It has been difficult to conduct large scale studies of microbiologically complex ecosystems using conventional microbiological techniques. Molecular identification techniques in new probe-target formats, such as checkerboard DNA-DNA hybridization, permit enumeration of large numbers of species in very large numbers of samples. Digoxigenin-labeled whole genomic probes to 40 common subgingival species were tested in a checkerboard hydridization format. Chemifluorescent signals resulting from the hybridization reactions were quantified using a Fluorimager and used to evaluate sensitivity and specificity of the probes. Sensitivity of the DNA probes was adjusted to detect 10(4) cells. In all, 93.5% of potential cross-reactions to 80 cultivable species exhibited signals <5% of that detected for the homologous probe signal. Competitive hybridization and probes prepared by subtraction hybridization and polymerase chain reaction were effective in minimizing cross-reactions for closely related taxa. To demonstrate utility, the technique was used to evaluate 8887 subgingival plaque samples from 79 periodontally healthy and 272 chronic periodontitis subjects and 8126 samples from 166 subjects taken prior to and after periodontal therapy. Significant differences were detected for many taxa for mean counts, proportion of total sample, and percentage of sites colonized between samples from periodontally healthy and periodontitis subjects. Further, significant reductions were observed post therapy for many subgingival species including periodontal pathogens. DNA probes used in the checkerboard DNA-DNA format provide a useful tool for the enumeration of bacterial species in microbiologically complex systems.