We have developed novel nucleic acid probes that recognize and report the presence of specific nucleic acids in homogeneous solutions. These probes undergo a spontaneous fluorogenic conformational change when they hybridize to their targets. Only perfectly complementary targets elicit this response, as hybridization does not occur when the target contains a mismatched nucleotide or a deletion. The probes are particularly suited for monitoring the synthesis of specific nucleic acids in real time. When used in nucleic acid amplification assays, gene detection is homogeneous and sensitive, and can be carried out in a sealed tube. When introduced into living cells, these probes should enable the origin, movement, and fate of specific mRNAs to be traced.