A set of six oligonucleotides, complementary to conserved tracts of 16S rRNA from phylogenetically-defined groups of sulfate-reducing bacteria, was characterized for use as hybridization probes in determinative and environmental microbiology. Four probes were genus specific and identified Desulfobacterium spp., Desulfobacter spp., Desulfobulbus spp., or Desulfovibrio spp. The other two probes encompassed more diverse assemblages. One probe was specific for the phylogenetic lineage composed of Desulfococcus multivorans, Desulfosarcina variabilis, and Desulfobotulus sapovorans. The remaining probe was specific for Desulfobacterium spp., Desulfobacter spp., D. multivorans, D. variabilis, and D. sapovorans. Temperature of dissociation was determined for each probe and the designed specificities of each were evaluated by hybridizations against closely related nontargeted species. In addition, each probe was screened by using a 'phylogrid' membrane which consisted of nucleic acids from sixtyfour non-targeted organisms representing a diverse collection of eukarya, archaea, and bacteria. The value of these probes to studies in environmental microbiology was evaluated by hybridizations to 16S rRNAs of sulfate-reducing bacteria present in marine sediments.