It is generally agreed that the hepatotoxic microcystins (MCs) are the most abundant toxins produced by cyanobacteria in freshwater. In various freshwater lakes in East Africa MC-producing Microcystis has been reported to dominate the phytoplankton, however the regulation of MC production is poorly understood. From May 2007 to April 2008 the Microcystis abundance, the absolute and relative abundance of the mcyB genotype indicative of MC production and the MC concentrations were recorded monthly in five freshwater lakes in Uganda: (1) in a crater lake (Lake Saka), (2) in three shallow lakes (Lake Mburo, George, Edward), (3) in Lake Victoria (Murchison Bay, Napoleon Gulf). During the whole study period Microcystis was abundant or dominated the phytoplankton. In all samples mcyB-containing cells of Microcystis were found and on average comprised 20 +/- 2% (SE) of the total population. The proportion of the mcyB genotype differed significantly between the sampling sites, and while the highest mcyB proportions were recorded in Lake Saka (37 +/- 3%), the lowest proportion was recorded in Lake George (1.4 +/- 0.2%). Consequently Microcystis from Lake George had the lowest MC cell quotas (0.03-1.24 fg MC cell(-1)) and resulted in the lowest MC concentrations (0-0.5 mu g L-1) while Microcystis from Lake Saka consistently showed maximum MC cell quotas (14-144 fg cell(-1)) and the highest MC concentrations (0.5-10.2 mu g L-1). Over the whole study period the average MC content per Microcystis cell depended linearly on the proportion of the mcyB genotype of Microcystis. It is concluded that Microcystis populations differ consistently and independently of the season in mcyB genotype proportion between lakes resulting in population-specific differences in the average MC content per cell. (C) 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.