Water bodies are routinely monitored for the presence of potentially toxic cyanobacteria; however, the methodology for confirming toxicity is currently complex and expensive. Here we describe the application of gene-based technology to rapidly identify cylindrospermopsin-producing cyanobacteria, specifically, Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii. A multiplex polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test was developed that simultaneously identified polyketide synthase (pks) and peptide synthetase (ps) determinants associated with cylindrospermopsin production and distinguished C. raciborskii from other cylindrospermopsin-producing cyanobacteria of the species Anabaena bergii and Aphanizomenon ovalisporum, by targeting the rpoC1 gene. Twenty-one C. raciborskii, 5 A. bergii, 10 Aph. ovalisporum isolates and 3 environmental samples all yielded PCR results consistent with their toxicological status, as assessed by high-performance liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry or matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization–time-of-flight mass spectrometry, and C. raciborskii was always correctly identified. The PCR test is a rapid, reliable, and economical way of assessing the toxic potential of cyanobacterial blooms formed by these organisms. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Environ Toxicol 18: 120–125, 2003.