Six 16S rRNA-targeted oligonucleotide probes were designed, validated, and used to quantify predominant groups of anaerobic bacteria in human fecal samples. A set of two probes was specific for species of the Bacteroides fragilis group and the species Bacteroides distasonis. Two others were designed to detect species of the Clostridium histolyticum and the Clostridium lituseburense groups. Another probe was designed for the genera Streptococcus and Lactococcus, and the final probe was designed for the species of the Clostridium coccoides-Eubacterium rectale group. The temperature of dissociation of each of the probes was determined. The specificities of the probes for a collection of target and reference organisms were tested by dot blot hybridization and fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH). The new probes were used in initial FISH experiments to enumerate human fecal bacteria. The combination of the two Bacteroides-specific probes detected a mean of 5.4 x 10(10) cells per g (dry weight) of feces; the Clostridium coccoides-Eubacterium rectale group-specific probe detected a mean of 7.2 x 10(10) cells per g (dry weight) of feces. The Clostridium histolyticum, Clostridium lituseburense, and Streptococcus-Lactococcus group-specific probes detected only numbers of cells ranging from 1 x 10(7) to 7 x 10(8) per g (dry weight) of feces. Three of the newly designed probes and three additional probes were used in further FISH experiments to study the fecal flora composition of nine volunteers over a period of 8 months. The combination of probes was able to detect at least two-thirds of the fecal flora. The normal biological variations within the fecal populations of the volunteers were determined and indicated that these variations should be considered when evaluating the effects of agents modulating the flora.