The sequence of the most variable part of the small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) gene, comprising 800 bases, was analysed for 9 Leishmania taxa and compared with those of Trypanosoma brucei, Trypanosoma cruzi and Crithidia fasciculata. Considerable differences were observed between the sequence of the Leishmania taxa on the one hand and those of Crithidia and Trypanosoma on the other. Amongst the Leishmania taxa only a few point mutations were found, all located within 2 sequence blocks in the central part of the SSU rRNA gene, which are unique for Kinetoplastida. These unique sequences were used for the development of kinetoplastid-specific probes and a Leishmania-specific PCR assay of high sensitivity (less than 10 parasites could be detected). Based on the observed point-mutations an identification of the Leishmania parasites, according to complex, could be achieved by direct sequencing, restriction fragment analysis or single-stranded conformation polymorphism of the PCR-generated fragments.