Control of tuberculosis is threatened by widespread emergence of drug resistance in Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Understanding the molecular basis of resistance might lead to development of novel rapid methods for diagnosing drug resistance. We set out to determine the molecular basis of resistance to rifampicin, a major component of multidrug regimens used for treating tuberculosis. Resistance to rifampicin involves alterations of RNA polymerase. The gene that encodes the RNA polymerase subunit beta (rpoB) was cloned. Sequence information from this gene was used to design primers for direct amplification and sequencing of a 411 bp rpoB fragment from 122 isolates of M tuberculosis. Mutations involving 8 conserved aminoacids were identified in 64 of 66 rifampicin-resistant isolates of diverse geographical origin, but in none of 56 sensitive isolates. All mutations were clustered within a region of 23 aminoacids. Thus, substitution of a limited number of highly conserved aminoacids encoded by the rpoB gene appears to be the molecular mechanism responsible for "single step" high-level resistance to rifampicin in M tuberculosis. This information was used to develop a strategy (polymerase chain reaction-single-strand conformation polymorphism) that allowed efficient detection of all known rifampicin-resistant mutants. These findings provide the basis for rapid detection of rifampicin resistance, a marker of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.