Accurate identification of fungal phytopathogens is essential for virtually all aspects of plant pathology, from fundamental research on the biology of pathogens to the control of the diseases they cause. Although molecular methods, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), are routinely used in the diagnosis of human diseases, they are not yet widely used to detect and identify plant pathogens. Here we review some of the diagnostic tools currently used for fungal plant pathogens. and describe some novel applications. Technological advances in PCR-based methods, such as real-time PCR, allow fast, accurate detection and quantification of plant pathogens and are now being applied to practical problems. Molecular methods have been used to detect several pathogens simultaneously in wheat, and to study the development of fungicide resistance in wheat pathogens. Information resulting from such work could be used to improve disease control by allowing more rational decisions to be made about the choice and use of fungicides and resistant cultivars. Molecular methods have also been applied to the study of variation in plant pathogen populations, for example detection of different mating types or virulence types. PCR-based methods can provide new tools to monitor the exposure of a crop to pathogen inoculum that are more reliable and faster than conventional methods. This information can be used to improve disease control decision making. The development and application of molecular diagnostic methods in the future is discussed and we expect that new developments will increase the adoption of these new technologies for the diagnosis and study of plant disease. (C) 2003 Society of Chemical Industry.