The sequence differences within the 16S rRNA genes of Lactobacillus casei/paracasei and related species, Lactobacillus zeae and Lactobacillus rhamnosus, were investigated. Thirty-seven strains of mostly human or cheese origin were grouped by restriction endonuclease analysis (REA) of the total chromosomal DNA and by temporal temperature gradient gel electrophoresis (TTGE) of PCR-amplified 16S rRNA gene fragments. REA verified that all strains were genomically unique and singled out three major clusters, one L. rhamnosus-cluster and two clusters containing L. paracasei strains. The groups obtained by TTGE corresponded with one exception to the REA-clusters. In the TTGE clustering all L. paracasei strains formed one general group with one TTGE-band in common, and this group was sub-divided into five subgroups due to the presence of more than one TTGE-band in four of the subgroups. The occurrence of multiple TTGE-bands was investigated by amplifying and cloning of the 16S rRNA genes from the strains showing this phenomenon, thereby 12 clones from each strain were sequenced, demonstrating polymorphisms in almost all the cases. Subjecting the clones displaying sequence variations to TTGE as well as sequencing of 16S rDNA revealed by ribotyping of the strains, verified the presence of polymorphisms within the 16S rRNA genes. The migration characteristic of amplified DNA from a single clone corresponded to a specific band in the TTGE-pattern of the strain from which the clone originated. Southern blot hybridisation with a 16S rDNA probe demonstrated the presence of at least five 16S rRNA genes in L. casei/paracasei. A higher degree of variable positions than previously reported was observed in the 16S rRNA gene fragments of the members in the complex. Sequence comparison between the 16S rRNA gene copies of L. casei (CCUG 21451T) and L. zeae (CCUG 35515T) demonstrated that the two species shared almost the same sequence in some copies while the others were more different. Our results provide one explanation for the difficulties in reaching clear-cut taxa within the L. casei/paracasei complex.