A single gonococcus possesses a family of 11 distinct and highly variable opa genes. The extensive variation and rapid evolution of the opa gene repertoire has been exploited to provide a high-resolution typing method for studies of the short-term transmission of gonorrhoea. The 11 opa genes are amplified with a single pair of primers by the polymerase chain reaction, digested with frequently-cutting restriction enzymes, and the fragments are fractionated on polyacrylamide to provide an opa-type. The method appeared to be highly discriminatory as the opa-types of gonococci, isolated world-wide over the last 30 years, were all different. Opa-typing discriminated between isolates of the same auxotype/serovar class. Similarly, there were 41 opa-types among 43 consecutive isolates from a sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinic. The two pairs of isolates from this clinic that gave the same opa-types were identical by other criteria and may have been from unsuspected sexual contacts. With one minor exception, identical opa-types were obtained from gonococci recovered from known sexual contacts. These results suggest that variation in the family of 11 opa genes evolves so rapidly that the opa-types of gonococci are distinguishable, unless the isolates are from sexual contacts or a short chain of disease transmission. The identification of gonococci with identical opa-types is therefore believed to be a good indicator that the individuals from which they were recovered were sexual partners, or part of a short chain of disease transmission.