Non-native marine species have been and continue to be introduced into Puget Sound via several vectors including ship's ballast water. Some non-native species become invasive and negatively impact native species or near shore habitats. We present a new methodology for the development and testing of taxon specific PCR primers designed to assess environmental samples of ocean water for the presence of native and non-native bivalves, crustaceans and algae. The intergenic spacer regions (IGS; ITS1, ITS2 and 5.8S) of the ribosomal DNA were sequenced for adult samples of each taxon studied. We used these data along with those available in Genbank to design taxon and group specific primers and tested their stringency against artificial populations of plasmid constructs containing the entire IGS region for each of the 25 taxa in our study, respectively. Taxon and group specific primer sets were then used to detect the presence or absence of native and non-native planktonic life-history stages (propagules) from environmental samples of ballast water and plankton tow net samples collected in Puget Sound. This methodology provides an inexpensive and efficient way to test the discriminatory ability of taxon specific oligonucleotides (PCR primers) before creating molecular probes or beacons for use in molecular ecological applications such as probe hybridizations or microarray analyses. This work addresses the current need to develop molecular tools capable of diagnosing the presence of planktonic life-history stages from non-native marine species (potential invaders) in ballast water and other environmental samples. ?? 2008 Elsevier B.V.