In this study, a Paenibacillus-specific PCR system, based on the specific primer PAEN515F in combination with bacterial primer R1401, was tested and used to amplify specific fragments of the 16S rRNA gene from rhizosphere DNA. The amplicons were used in a second (semi-nested) PCR for DGGE, in which bacterial primers F968GC and R1401 were used. The resulting products were separated into community fingerprints by DGGE. To assess the reliability of the method, the diversity of Paenibacillus species was evaluated on the basis of DNA extracted directly from the rhizospheres of four different cultivars of maize (Zea mays), i.e. CMS04, CMS11, CMS22 and CMS36, sown in two Brazilian field soils (Cerrado and Várzea). In addition, a clone library was generated from the PCR-generated 16S rDNA fragments, and selected clones were sequenced. The results of the bacterial community analyses showed, at the level of clone libraries, that considerable diversity among Paenibacillus spp. was present. The most dominantly found sequences clustered into 12 groups, each one potentially representing a species complex. Sequences closely affiliated with the P. macerans and P. azotofixans complexes were found in all samples, whereas other sequences were scarcer. Clones affiliated with the latter species complex were most abundant, representing 19% of all clones analysed. The Paenibacillus fingerprints generated via semi-nested PCR followed by DGGE showed a clear distinction between the maize plants grown in Cerrado versus Várzea soils. Thus, soil type, instead of maize cultivar type, was the overriding determinative factor that influenced the community structures of the Paenibacillus communities in the rhizospheres investigated. At a lower level (subcluster), there was a trend for maize cultivars CMS11 and CMS22 on the one hand, and CMS36 and CMS04 on the other hand, to cluster together, indicating that these respective pair of cultivars were similar in their Paenibacillus species composition. This trend was tentatively linked to the growth characteristics of these maize cultivars. These results clearly demonstrated the efficacy of the Paenibacillus-specific PCR-DGGE method in describing Paenibacillus species diversity in rhizosphere soils.