Genetic loci containing variable numbers of tandem repeats (VNTR loci) form the basis for human gene mapping and identification, forensic analysis and paternity testing. The variability of bacterial tandem repeats has not been systematically studied. Eleven tandem repeat loci in the M. tuberculosis genome were analysed. Five major polymorphic tandem repeat (MPTR) loci contained 15-bp repeats with substantial sequence variation in adjacent copies. Six exact tandem repeat (ETR) loci contained large DNA repeats with identical sequences in adjacent repeats. These 11 loci were amplified in 48 strains to determine the number of tandem repeats at each locus. The strains analysed included 25 wild-type strains of M. tuberculosis, M. bovis, M. africanum and M. microti and 23 substrains of the attenuated M. bovis BCG vaccine. One of the five MPTR loci and all six ETR loci had length polymorphisms corresponding to insertions or deletions of tandem repeats. Most ETR loci were located in intergenic regions where copy number may influence expression of downstream genes. Each ETR locus had multiple alleles in the panel. Combined analysis identified 22 distinct allele profiles in 25 wild-type strains of the M. tuberculosis complex and five allele profiles in 23 M. bovis BCG substrains. Allele profiles were reproducible and stable, as demonstrated by analyses of multiple isolates of particular reference strains obtained from different laboratories. VNTR typing may be generally useful for strain differentiation and evolutionary studies in bacteria.