A real-time PCR-based method targeting the 18S rRNA gene was developed for the quantitative detection of Hartmannella vermiformis, a free-living amoeba which is a potential host for Legionella pneumophila in warm water systems and cooling towers. The detection specificity was validated using genomic DNA of the closely related amoeba Hartmannella abertawensis as a negative control and sequence analysis of amplified products from environmental samples. Real-time PCR detection of serially diluted DNA extracted from H. vermiformis was linear for microscopic cell counts between 1.14 x 10(-1) and 1.14 x 10(4) cells per PCR. The genome of H. vermiformis harbors multiple copies of the 18S rRNA gene, and an average number (with standard error) of 1,330 +/- 127 copies per cell was derived from real-time PCR calibration curves for cell suspensions and plasmid DNA. No significant differences were observed between the 18S rRNA gene copy numbers for trophozoites and cysts of strain ATCC 50237 or between the copy numbers for this strain and strain KWR-1. The developed method was applied to water samples (200 ml) collected from a variety of lakes and rivers serving as sources for drinking water production in The Netherlands. Detectable populations were found in 21 of the 28 samples, with concentrations ranging from 5 to 75 cells/liter. A high degree of similarity (> or =98%) was observed between sequences of clones originating from the different surface waters and between these clones and the reference strains. Hence, H. vermiformis, which is highly similar to strains serving as hosts for L. pneumophila, is a common component of the microbial community in fresh surface water.