A geographically homogeneous population of 83 subjects, from 21 families with localized juvenile periodontitis (LJP), and 35 healthy control subjects was monitored, over a 5-year period, for the presence of the periodontal pathogen Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans. Restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis was used to monitor the distribution of genetic variants of this bacterium in LJP-susceptible subjects that converted from a healthy to a diseased periodontal status. A. actinomycetemcomitans was cultured from 57% of the LJP family members accessioned into the study. Nine of 36 LJP-susceptible subjects, in seven families, developed signs of periodontal destruction. All but one of these conversion subjects harbored A. actinomycetemcomitans. Bacterial variants representative of a single RFLP group (II) showed the strongest correlation with conversion (P < 0.002). Six of nine conversion subjects were infected with A. actinomycetemcomitans from this group. RFLP group II variants also prevailed in 8 of 22 probands but were absent in the 35 healthy control subjects. In contrast to the selective distribution of group II variants is diseased individuals, variants belonging to RFLP groups XIII and XIV were found exclusively in the control subjects. Thus, the use of RFLP to type clinical isolates of A. actinomycetemcomitans has resulted in the identification of genetic variants that predominate in LJP and health. These results indicate that studies concerned with the pathogenicity of this bacterium in LJP should be focused on the group II variants.