A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with thermostable DNA polymerase from Thermus aquaticus is described for the specific amplification of the phospholipase C (alpha-toxin) gene of Clostridium perfringens. A set of primers selected for their high specificity could detect Cl. perfringens in stools with a detection limit of approximately 5 x 10(2) bacteria, after bi-amplification. A modified PCR without thermal steps was performed to rapidly amplify, with a yield of 60%, the DNA template. With this PCR method Cl. perfringens alpha-toxin gene could be detected within 2 h. The PCR method detected alpha-toxin positive Cl. perfringens but did not react with phospholipase C-producing Bacillus cereus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Cl. sordellii and Cl. bifermentans. The amplified PCR products were screened through ethidium bromide agarose gel electrophoresis or, in only 1 h, with the PhastSystem (Pharmacia). This PCR satisfies the criteria of specificity, sensitivity and rapidity required for a useful tool in epidemiology and for the diagnosis of the pathogen Cl. perfringens as it may be used directly on stool samples.