The basis for genotypic and phenotypic variation within Streptococcus mutans is poorly understood but the availability of the genome sequence of strain UA159 provides an opportunity for comparative studies. Genomic DNA prepared from nine strains of S. mutans was used to probe a microarray consisting of oligonucleotides representing 1948 open reading frames of S. mutans UA159. A total of 385 (20%) of the UA159 open reading frames were found to be absent from one or more of the test strains. Absent open reading frames frequently occurred in blocks of adjacent open reading frames and represented regions previously experimentally detected by polymerase chain reaction, predicted genomic islands and insertion sequence elements as well as novel open reading frames. Approximately half appear to involve foreign DNA acquired by horizontal transmission. The results indicate the existence of distinct core and dispensable genomes and may help explain the phenotypic and genotypic variation within S. mutans.