The almost complete 16S rRNA sequence from Mycobacterium leprae was determined by direct sequencing of the chromosomal gene amplified by the polymerase chain reaction. The primary sequence revealed an insertion of 12 nucleotides at the 5' end of the 16S rRNA gene, which consists of an A-T stretch and appears to be unique for M. leprae. Within the mycobacteria M. leprae branches off with a group of slow-growing species comprising M. scrofulaceum, M. kansasii, M. szulgai, M. malmoense, M. intracellulare and M. avium. A systematic comparison of the nucleotide sequence resulted in the characterization of oligonucleotide probes which are highly specific for M. leprae. The probes hybridized exclusively to 16S rRNA nucleic acids from M. leprae, but not to nucleic acids from 20 cultivable fast- and slow-growing mycobacteria.