Simple and reproducible fingerprints of complex genomes can be generated using single arbitrarily chosen primers and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). No prior sequence information is required. The method, arbitrarily primed PCR (AP-PCR), involves two cycles of low stringency amplification followed by PCR at higher stringency. We show that strains can be distinguished by comparing polymorphisms in genomic fingerprints. The generality of the method is demonstrated by application to twenty four strains from five species of Staphylococcus, eleven strains of Streptococcus pyogenes and three varieties of Oryza sativa (rice).