Salivary levels of mutans streptococci (S. mutans and S. sobrinus) and lactobacilli were determined in a random sample of rural Kenyans between 15 and 19 years of age (n = 149). It is possible for the natural history of dental caries in this population to be studied since it is characterized by a limited access to conventional dental treatment. Using a short set of biochemical tests, we identified from seven to ten presumptive mutans streptococcus colonies--cultured from the saliva of each individual--to differentiate between S. mutans and S. sobrinus. No colonies resembling S. rattus (S. mutans serotype b) were isolated. Lactobacilli were identified as Gram-positive, catalase-negative rods. The mean D1-4MFS and D3-4MFS were 7.03 +/- 6.43 and 1.46 +/- 3.44, respectively. The mean mutans streptococcus and lactobacillus levels were 8.7 x 10(4) and 6.7 x 10(4), respectively. The salivary mutans streptococcus and lactobacillus levels were significantly correlated (p less than 0.01). Of the subjects, 64% harbored only S. mutans, 4% only S. sobrinus, 30% both species, and 2% neither. Lactobacilli were ubiquitous. The caries experience of the group was significantly (p less than 0.001) correlated with both the total salivary level of mutans streptococci and the salivary S. mutans levels, but not with the salivary S. sobrinus level.