The genome of the causative agent of leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, contains at least 28 copies of a dispersed repetitive sequence, RLEP. From nucleotide sequence analysis it was clear that the RLEP element consists of a 545 bp central domain flanked by a 100 bp left-end and a 44 bp right-end, sometimes associated with a 47 bp extension. The presence of the left and right ends is variable and this allowed three different RLEP configurations to be defined. When the polymerase chain reaction was used to study variation of the central region at least twelve different classes were detected, suggesting that no two RLEP sequences may be identical. Furthermore, they have few features in common with classical bacterial insertion sequences.