BACKGROUND: Ureaplasma urealyticum (UUR) and Ureaplasma parvum (UPA) are sexually transmitted bacteria among humans implicated in a variety of disease states including but not limited to: nongonococcal urethritis, infertility, adverse pregnancy outcomes, chorioamnionitis, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia in neonates. There are 10 distinct serotypes of UUR and 4 of UPA. Efforts to determine whether difference in pathogenic potential exists at the ureaplasma serovar level have been hampered by limitations of antibody-based typing methods, multiple cross-reactions and poor discriminating capacity in clinical samples containing two or more serovars. RESULTS: We determined the genome sequences of the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) type strains of all UUR and UPA serovars as well as four clinical isolates of UUR for which we were not able to determine serovar designation. UPA serovars had 0.75-0.78 Mbp genomes and UUR serovars were 0.84-0.95 Mbp. The original classification of ureaplasma isolates into distinct serovars was largely based on differences in the major ureaplasma surface antigen called the multiple banded antigen (MBA) and reactions of human and animal sera to the organisms. Whole genome analysis of the 14 serovars and the 4 clinical isolates showed the mba gene was part of a large superfamily, which is a phase variable gene system, and that some serovars have identical sets of mba genes. Most of the differences among serovars are hypothetical genes, and in general the two species and 14 serovars are extremely similar at the genome level. CONCLUSIONS: Comparative genome analysis suggests UUR is more capable of acquiring genes horizontally, which may contribute to its greater virulence for some conditions. The overwhelming evidence of extensive horizontal gene transfer among these organisms from our previous studies combined with our comparative analysis indicates that ureaplasmas exist as quasi-species rather than as stable serovars in their native environment. Therefore, differential pathogenicity and clinical outcome of a ureaplasmal infection is most likely not on the serovar level, but rather may be due to the presence or absence of potential pathogenicity factors in an individual ureaplasma clinical isolate and/or patient to patient differences in terms of autoimmunity and microbiome.