Sequence heterogeneities in 16S rRNA genes from individual strains of Paenibacillus polymyxa were detected by sequence-dependent separation of PCR products by temperature gradient gel electrophoresis (TGGE). A fragment of the 16S rRNA genes, comprising variable regions V6 to V8, was used as a target sequence for amplifications. PCR products from P. polymyxa (type strain) emerged as a well-defined pattern of bands in the gradient gel. Six plasmids with different inserts, individually demonstrating the migration characteristics of single bands of the pattern, were obtained by cloning the PCR products. Their sequences were analyzed as a representative sample of the total heterogeneity. An amount of 10 variant nucleotide positions in the fragment of 347 bp was observed, with all substitutions conserving the relevant secondary structures of the V6 and V8 regions in the RNA molecules. Hybridizations with specifically designed probes demonstrated different chromosomal locations of the respective rRNA genes. Amplifications of reverse-transcribed rRNA from ribosome preparations, as well as whole-cell hybridizations, revealed a predominant representation of particular sequences in ribosomes of exponentially growing laboratory cultures. Different strains of P. polymyxa showed not only remarkably differing patterns of PCR products in TGGE analysis but also discriminative whole-cell labeling with the designed oligonucleotide probes, indicating the different representation of individual sequences in active ribosomes. Our results demonstrate the usefulness of TGGE for the structural analysis of heterogeneous rRNA genes together with their expression, stress problems of the generation of meaningful data for 16S rRNA sequences and probe designs, and might have consequences for evolutionary concepts.