The pathogenesis of clostridial myonecrosis, or gas gangrene, involves the growth of the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium perfringens in the infected tissues and the elaboration of numerous extracellular toxins and enzymes. The precise role of each of these toxins in tissue invasion and necrosis has not been determined. To enable genetic approaches to be used to study C. perfringens pathogenesis we developed an allelic exchange method which involved the transformation of C. perfringens cells with a suicide plasmid carrying a gene insertionally inactivated with an erythromycin-resistance determinant. The frequency with which double reciprocal crossover events were observed was increased to a workable level by increasing the amount of homologous DNA located on either side of the inactivated gene. Allelic exchange was used to isolate mutations in the chromosomal pfoA gene, which encodes an oxygen-labile haemolysin known as theta-toxin or perfringolysin O, and in the chromosomal plc gene, which encodes the alpha-toxin or phospholipase C. The resultant mutants failed to produce detectable theta-toxin or alpha-toxin activity, respectively, and could be complemented by recombinant plasmids that carried the respective wild-type genes. The resultant strains were virulence tested in a mouse myonecrosis model. The results showed that the plc mutants had demonstrably reduced virulence and therefore provided definitive genetic evidence for the essential role of alpha-toxin in gas gangrene or clostridial myonecrosis.