Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Much remains unknown about the basic biology of P. carinii and studies of this infection have been hampered by the lack of cultivation methods. We developed a sensitive and specific assay for P. carinii by utilizing DNA amplification of the P. carinii dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) gene. By this method, P. carinii DNA was detected in the lungs of rats with experimentally induced P. carinii pneumonia 2 wk before the onset of histopathological changes. DNA amplification analysis of serum demonstrated that by 10 wk of corticosteroid treatment, 12 of 12 (100%) infected rats had circulating DHFR DNA. P. carinii DHFR DNA also was detected in the serum of patients with AIDS and active P. carinii pneumonia (12 of 14 sera collected prospectively). Patients with advanced AIDS but without a history of P. carinii pneumonia were negative by this assay (0 of 6 sera examined). Serum polymerase chain reaction may facilitate investigations into the natural history and epidemiology of P. carinii infection, provide insight into the pathogenesis of parasite dissemination, and offer a useful, noninvasive diagnostic test for the detection of human pneumocystosis.

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