The principle of fluorescence polarization described by Perrin (F. Perrin, J. Phys. Radium 7:390-401, 1926) was applied to the development of a novel assay that used fluorescein-labeled Mycobacterium bovis secretory protein MPB70 for rapid detection of anti-MPB70 antibodies in selected sera from three M. bovis-infected species (elk, Ilama, and bison). Labeling of purified MPB70 with fluorescein isothiocyanate resulted in the incorporation of 0.96 +/- 0.08 (mean +/- standard deviation; n = 3) fluorescein group per MPB70 molecule. The labeled protein fluoresced strongly with an emission maximum at 518 nm when excited with light of a wavelength near 493 nm, and its immunoreactivity with anti-MPB70 monoclonal antibody 4C3/17 was not altered by modification with fluorescein. The fluorescence polarization assay protocol was optimized for analysis of serum samples by incorporating into the assay buffer 0.05% lithium dodecyl sulfate, which prevents the occurrence of some nonspecific interactions. Sera from M. bovis-infected animals, selected on the basis of exhibiting the presence of anti-MPB70 antibodies, as detected by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), reacted with fluorescein-labeled MPB70, resulting in an increase in polarization of up to 330 milli-polarization units, in contrast to the values for noninfected sera (167 to 178 mP), which were close to that obtained in the absence of specific antibodies (164.7 +/- 3.3 mP; n = 6). These results demonstrated the feasibility of using fluorescein-labeled MPB70 to detect anti-MPB70 antibodies by fluorescence polarization and suggested that the assay described here can be an alternative to ELISA or other antibody assay systems. The advantages of this original methodology and its general applicability to the diagnosis of infectious diseases are discussed.