The 1896 precore (PC) mutation is the most frequent cause of hepatitis B virus e-antigen (HBeAg)-negative chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. Detection of the 1896 PC mutation has application in studies monitoring antiviral therapy and the natural history of the disease. Identification of this mutation is usually performed by direct sequencing, which is both costly and laborious. The aim of this study was to develop a rapid, high-throughput assay to detect the 1896 PC mutation using real-time PCR and molecular-beacon technology. The assay was initially standardized on oligonucleotide targets and plasmids containing the wild-type (WT) and PC mutation and then tested on plasma samples from children with HBV DNA of >10(6) copies/ml. Nine individuals were HBeAg negative and suspected to harbor HBeAg mutations, while 12 children were HBeAg positive and selected as controls. Ninety percent (19 of 21) of plasma samples tested with molecular beacons were in complete agreement with sequencing results. The remaining 10% (2 of 21) of samples were identified as heterogeneous mixtures of WT and mutant virus by molecular beacons, though sequencing found only a homogeneous mutant in both cases. Overall, the 1896 PC mutation was detected by this assay in 55.5% of the children with HBeAg-negative infection. In summary, this assay is a rapid, sensitive, and specific technique that effectively discriminates WT from 1896 PC mutant HBV and may be useful in clinical and epidemiological studies.