Current molecular detection methods for the genus Phytophthora are specific to a few key species rather than the whole genus and this is a recognized weakness of protocols for ecological studies and international plant health legislation. In the present study a molecular approach was developed to detect Phytophthora species in soil and water samples using novel sets of genus-specific primers designed against the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) regions. Two different rDNA primer sets were tested: one assay amplified a long product including the ITS1, 5.8S and ITS2 regions (LP) and the other a shorter product including the ITS1 only (SP). Both assays specifically amplified products from Phytophthora species without cross-reaction with the related Pythium s. lato, however the SP assay proved the more sensitive and reliable. The method was validated using woodland soil and stream water from Invergowrie, Scotland. On-site use of a knapsack sprayer and in-line water filters proved more rapid and effective than centrifugation at sampling Phytophthora propagules. A total of 15 different Phytophthora phylotypes were identified which clustered within the reported ITS-clades 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8. The range and type of the sequences detected varied from sample to sample and up to three and five different Phytophthora phylotypes were detected within a single sample of soil or water, respectively. The most frequently detected sequences were related to members of ITS-clade 6 (i.e. P. gonapodyides-like). The new method proved very effective at discriminating multiple species in a given sample and can also detect as yet unknown species. The reported primers and methods will prove valuable for ecological studies, biosecurity and commercial plant, soil or water (e.g. irrigation water) testing as well as the wider metagenomic sampling of this fascinating component of microbial pathogen diversity. (C) 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.