The 5′-3′ exonuclease activity of DNA polymerase was utilized in the polymerase chain reaction system to generate a specific signal concomitant with amplification. These signals were detected by matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOFMS). This method obviates the need to perform extensive DNA purification of reaction products that is often necessary for detecting larger DNA molecules by mass spectrometry. Oligonucleotides complementary to the internal region of the amplicon are degraded by the 5′-3′ exonuclease activity and the degradation products are analyzed by MALDI mass spectrometry. We refer to this assay as the Exo-taq assay or probe degradation assay. This method should be amenable to automation. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.