Bacterial invasion of host epithelial cells plays an important role in the pathogenesis of periodontal diseases; however, the interactions between subgingival species and the gingival crevice cells are not fully understood. This study determined the prevalence of a group of oral bacterial species on or in epithelial cells derived from periodontal pockets and the gingival crevice of subjects with periodontitis. Samples of epithelial cells were obtained from 120 sites with periodontal pockets > or =4 mm and 92 periodontally healthy sites from 49 patients (mean age 46.3+/-1.4 years; 43% males) with chronic periodontitis. Bacteria in or on epithelial cells were separated from unattached bacteria by Percoll density-gradient centrifugation. The presence and levels of 33 oral species were determined in epithelial cell samples by whole genomic DNA probes and the checkerboard method. The most frequently detected species were Porphyromonas gingivalis (42%), Treponema denticola (38%), Prevotella intermedia (37%), Streptococcus intermedius (36%), Campylobacter rectus (35%), Streptococcus sanguinis (35%) and Streptococcus oralis (34%). Species of Actinomyces were found in low prevalence and levels. The data indicated that there were more micro-organisms on or in epithelial cells obtained from periodontal pockets than from healthy sulci; however, no significant differences regarding the percentage and level of any specific species were found between these sites. Veillonella parvula, S. oralis, Streptococcus gordonii and Streptococcus mitis tended to be more prevalent in sites without disease. These findings demonstrated that a wide range of oral species may be detected on or in crevicular epithelial cells from sites with periodontitis and from periodontally healthy sulci.