Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans is recognized as a primary pathogen in localized juvenile periodontitis (LJP). Restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLP) within a collection of subgingival plaque isolates of this bacterium were identified and characterized as the first step in understanding the pathogenesis of LJP. Over 800 isolates, from members of 18 families (LJP families) with at least one member with active LJP or a documented history of the disease and one or more siblings, less than 13 years of age, having no clinical evidence of LJP and 32 healthy control subjects, were assigned to one of 13 distinct RFLP groups (II to XIV) by using a previously characterized 4.7-kb DNA probe cloned from the reference strain FDC Y4. Isolates belonging to RFLP groups II, IV, V, and XIII predominated subgingival sites in the subjects. Members of RFLP groups II, IV, VII, VIII, X, and XI were recovered only from LJP family subjects, while group XIII and XIV variants were found exclusively in healthy controls. A synthetic oligonucleotide, homologous to the 5' end of the leukotoxin gene (lktA), and the A. actinomycetemcomitans plasmid, pVT745, were tested for their abilities to subdivide the 13 RFLP groups. The leukotoxin probe specifically identified all RFLP group II variants because of the absence of a HindIII site in the upstream noncoding region of the lkt gene complex. The plasmid probe was not as selective but may be useful for identifying clinical isolates belonging to RFLP group I. The use of these probes for the identification of genetic variants of A. actinomycetemcomitans that may be preferentially colonize diseased and healthy subjects will facilitate the study of the role of this important pathogen in periodontal diseases.