A polymerase chain reaction-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE) approach for the detection and characterization of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) 18S ribosomal DNA (rDNA) was developed and applied to the study of AMF communities associated with the main sand-stabilizing plant species of the Dutch sand dunes, marram grass (Ammophila arenaria, L.). DNA was extracted directly from plant roots, soil or isolated AMF spores, and prominent bands resulting from AMF-specific DGGE profiles were excised for sequence analysis. This strategy provided a robust means of detecting and identifying AMF-like species without the use of trap plant cultivation methods. A number of Glomus-like and Scutellospora-like sequences was detected, including a putatively novel Glomus species, and differences were observed in the dominant AMF-like populations detected in healthy vs. degenerating stands of A. arenaria and in bulk sand dune soil. It has previously been suggested that plant pathogens, such as fungi and nematodes, may contribute to the decline of A. arenaria. Although no causal relationship can be drawn between the observed differences in the dominantly detected AMF-like populations and the vitality of plant growth, these results indicate that mutualistic interactions between this plant and AMF should not be overlooked when examining the role of soil-borne microorganisms in vegetation dynamics. In addition, there were discrepancies observed between the AMF-like groups detected in spore populations vs. direct 18S rDNA analysis of root material, corroborating previous suggestions that spore inspection alone may poorly represent actual AMF population structure.