Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) isolates among patients with chronic lung disease were studied for their heterogeneity using genetic identification methods, pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and seroagglutination. A mean of 7.3 cultures per patient were collected from 17 patients with nodular bronchiectasis who were elderly (mean age 66 yr), predominantly female (76%), had smoked a mean of only 5 pack-years, and had multifocal bronchiectasis. A mean of 7.7 cultures per patient were collected from nine patients with upper lobe cavitary disease who were younger (mean age 52 yr), predominantly male (78%), and heavy smokers (mean 56 pack-yr). A mean of 2.9 PFGE types (genotypes) per patient (range, 1 to 9) were identified in the nodular bronchiectasis group, with 15 of 17 patients (88%) having two or more genotypes and 9 of 17 (53%) having three or more genotypes. In contrast a mean of 1.2 genotypes were identified in the patients with cavitary disease, with only 1 of 9 (11%) having two or more genotypes. Mycobacterium intracellulare was the most frequently recovered genotype in both groups and most isolates were rough or nontypable by seroagglutination. Some genotypes from the same patient considered different by current PFGE criteria had the same serotype and shared 11 to 20 common PFGE bands, suggesting they were related. These data demonstrate that patients with nodular bronchiectasis have multiple and/or repeated infections due to MAC whereas patients with upper lobe cavitary disease are usually infected with only a single strain.