A multicenter study has been carried out to characterize 13 polymorphic short tandem repeat (STR) systems located on the male specific part of the human Y chromosome (DYS19, DYS288, DYS385, DYS388, DYS389I/II, DYS390, DYS391, DYS392, DYS393, YCAI, YCAII, YCAIII, DXYS156Y). Amplification parameters and electrophoresis protocols including multiplex approaches were compiled. The typing of non-recombining Y loci with uniparental inheritance requires special attention to population substructuring due to prevalent male lineages. To assess the extent of these subheterogeneities up to 3825 unrelated males were typed in up to 48 population samples for the respective loci. A consistent repeat based nomenclature for most of the loci has been introduced. Moreover we have estimated the average mutation rate for DYS19 in 626 confirmed fatherson pairs as 3.2 x 10(-3) (95% confidence interval limits of 0.00041-0.00677), a value which can also be expected for other Y-STR loci with similar repeat structure. Recommendations are given for the forensic application of a basic set of 7 STRs (DYS19, DYS3891, DYS389II, DYS390, DYS391, DYS392, DYS393) for standard Y-haplotyping in forensic and paternity casework. We recommend further the inclusion of the highly polymorphic bilocal Y-STRs DYS385, YCAII, YCAIII for a nearly complete individualisation of almost any given unrelated male individual. Together, these results suggest that Y-STR loci are useful markers to identify males and male lineages in forensic practice.