A PCR assay for the sensitive detection of a transforming fragment of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) was developed. Oligonucleotide primers were selected in Xho-2, a transforming region of the BglII N fragment of HSV-2. The assay reached a sensitivity endpoint of 10 copies of the Xho-2 subfragment and did not show cross-reactivity with other herpesviruses, including HSV-1. All 42 HSV-2 isolates scored positive in the assay. The Xho-2 PCR assay was evaluated with 216 clinical specimens and the results were compared with those of cell culture. The best protocol for processing specimens contained in viral transport medium included a centrifugation step followed by cell lysis. Of the 107 specimens positive for HSV-2 by culture, 105 were PCR positive (sensitivity, 98.1%). For one of the two falsely negative samples, beta-globin as well as sequences from the HSV-2 DNA polymerase gene could not be amplified. The other sample scored positive in both of these reactions but was indeterminate in duplicate tests by Xho-2 PCR. Two of 109 HSV-2 culture-negative specimens tested positive in the PCR assay (specificity, 98.2%). The latter two samples tested positive in a PCR test for the HSV-2 DNA polymerase gene. This novel tool was shown to be sensitive and specific for HSV-2 sequences and should allow for the investigation of the role of HSV-2 in genital cancers.