Acinetobacter baumannii is now one of the most frequently encountered nosocomial pathogens in intensive therapy units, and is renowned for being difficult to treat because of resistance to most antibiotics. Carbapenems are the remaining drugs of choice in many centres, but carbapenem resistance is now emerging in strains worldwide. Two subgroups of carbapenem-hydrolysing beta-lactamases, which differ in their amino-acid homology, have been found in some resistant strains. This report describes the emergence and characterisation of a novel carbapenemase (OXA-51) in genetically distinct carbapenem-resistant A. baumannii strains from Argentina. Enzyme kinetics and inhibitor studies were performed spectrophotometrically with purified beta-lactamase. Amplification of the gene was achieved with a two-step PCR method employing arbitrary partially degenerate and gene-specific primers. Transfer of imipenem resistance was attempted with the use of broth and membrane filter methods. Attempts to produce plasmid-cured variants were made in ethidium bromide curing experiments. OXA-51 was identified in two clones of A. baumannii, and was found to have < 63% amino-acid identity with subgroups 1 and 2. Enzyme kinetic studies confirmed that OXA-51 was a molecular class D enzyme with carbapenemase activity, and that it displayed the highest affinity for imipenem (Km value 11 microM). Sequence analysis of the gene identified distinct differences within conserved class D motifs when compared with subgroups 1 and 2. Attempts to transfer imipenem resistance and to determine a plasmid location for the gene failed. OXA-51 is the first of a new subgroup of carbapenemases to emerge in multiresistant clinical isolates of A. baumannii.