Seasonal variations in the level of total microcystins in water samples collected from Donghu Lake and a fish pond in Wuhan, China, were studied between March 1995 and February 1996 using a protein phosphatase inhibition assay involving a radioactive 32P-labelled substrate. The assay is highly reliable and repeatable, and is probably the most sensitive assay for microcystin detection to date. Results of the survey indicated the presence of microcystins in the water samples, and the concentration of microcystins appeared to be related to the degree of eutrophication and water temperature. There is also a correlative relationship between the quantity of microcystins and the abundance of microcystin-producing cyanobacteria (Anabaena and Oscillatoria) in the water bodies over a year cycle. In the present study, the positive detection of microcystins in water bodies having no signs of algal bloom warns of considerable potential threat of these waters to public health. Copyright © 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.