Pyrolysis mass spectrometry (PyMS) was used to produce biochemical fingerprints from replicate frozen cell cultures of mouse macrophage hybridoma 2C11-12, human leukaemia K562, baby hamster kidney BHK 21/C13, and mouse tumour BW-O, and a fresh culture of Chinese hamster ovary CHO cells. The dimensionality of these data was reduced by the unsupervised feature extraction pattern recognition technique of auto-associative neural networks. The clusters observed were compared with the groups obtained from the more conventional statistical approaches of hierarchical cluster analysis. It was observed that frozen and fresh cell line cultures gave very different pyrolysis mass spectra. When only the frozen animal cells were analysed by PyMS, auto-associative artificial neural networks (ANNs) were employed to discriminate between them successfully. Furthermore, very similar classifications were observed when the same spectral data were analysed using hierarchical cluster analysis. We demonstrate that this approach can detect the contamination of cell lines with low numbers of bacteria and fungi; this approach could plausibly be extended for the rapid detection of mycoplasma infection in animal cell lines. The major advantages that PyMS offers over more conventional methods used to type cell lines and to screen for microbial infection, such as DNA fingerprinting, are its speed, sensitivity and the ability to analyse hundreds of samples per day. We conclude that the combination of PyMS and ANNs can provide a rapid and accurate discriminatory technique for the authentication of animal cell line cultures.