We have used the technique of ribonuclease protection to define genomic variation among circulating isolates of subgroup A respiratory syncytial (RS) virus. RNAs extracted from HEp-2 cells infected with strains to be analyzed were hybridized with a 32P-labeled RNA probe corresponding to the RS virus G glycoprotein (A2 strain). Areas of nonhomology were detected by cleavage with ribonuclease A. Using this technique, multiple distinct RNA cleavage patterns could be distinguished among viral isolates recovered from infants residing in the same metropolitan area and infected during the same epidemic season. Epidemiologically related isolates (from coinfected twins, from infants infected during a nosocomial outbreak at an extended care facility, and from institutionalized adults infected during an outbreak) yielded identical patterns. In two separate outbreaks, differences in cleavage patterns among certain isolates corresponded to epidemiologically significant differences among the individuals from whom the isolates were recovered. We conclude that substantial genomic heterogeneity exists among circulating isolates of subgroup A RS virus. Ribonuclease protection can be used as a molecular fingerprinting tool for expanded studies of the molecular epidemiology of this virus.