The thiaminase I enzyme produced by the gram-positive bacterium Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus isolated from the viscera of Lake Michigan alewives Alosa pseudoharengus is currently the only defined source of the thiaminase activity linked to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency in early mortality syndrome (EMS) in the larvae of Great Lakes salmonines. Diets of alewife or isolated strains of P. thiaminolyticus mixed in a semipurified diet and fed to lake trout Salvelinus namaycush have been shown to produce EMS in fry. We utilized quantitative polymerase chain reaction (Q-PCR) to aid in studies of the sources of P. thiaminolyticus and thiaminase I. Quantitative PCR assays were established to detect the thiaminase I gene of P. thiaminolyticus, the 16S rRNA gene from most species of bacteria, and the 16S rRNA gene specifically from P. thiaminolyticus and a few closely related taxa. The Q-PCR assays are linear over at least six orders of magnitude and can detect the thiaminase I gene of P. thiaminolyticus from as few as 1,000 P. thiaminolyticus cells/g of sample or the Paenibacillus 16S rRNA gene from as few as 100 P. thiaminolyticus cells/g of sample. The initial results from alewife viscera samples with high thiaminase activity yielded unexpectedly low densities of P. thiaminolyticus cells; Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus was detectable in 2 of 6 alewife viscera tested at densities on the order of 100 cells/g out of 100,000,000 total bacterial cells/g. The low numbers of P. thiaminolyticus detected suggest that alewives contain additional non-P. thiaminolyticus sources of thiaminase activity.