Molecular methods provide promising tools for routine detection and quantification of toxic microalgae in plankton samples. To this end, novel TaqMan minor groove binding probes and primers targeting the small (SSU) or large (LSU) ribosomal subunit (rRNA) were developed for two species of the marine dinoflagellate genus Alexandrium (A. minutum, A. tamutum) and for three groups/ribotypes of the A. tamarense species complex: Group I/North American (NA), Group II/Mediterranean (ME) and Group III/Western European (WE). Primers and probes for real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR) were speciesspecific and highly efficient when tested in qPCR assays for cross-validation with pure DNA from cultured Alexandrium strains. Suitability of the qPCR assays as molecular tools for the detection and estimation of relative cell abundances of Alexandrium species and groups was evaluated from samples of natural plankton assemblages along the Scottish east coast. The results were compared with inverted microscope cell counts (Utermo¨ hl technique) of Alexandrium spp. and associated paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxin concentrations. The qPCR assays indicated that A. tamarense (Group I) and A. tamutum were the most abundant Alexandrium taxa and both were highly positively correlated with PSP toxin content of plankton samples. Cells of A. tamarense (Group III) were present at nearly all stations but in low abundance. Alexandrium minutum and A. tamarense (Group II) cells were not detected in any of the samples, thereby arguing for their absence from the specific North Sea region, at least at the time of the survey. The sympatric occurrence of A. tamarense Group I and Group III gives further support to the hypothesis that the groups/ribotypes of the A. tamarense species complex are cryptic species rather than variants belonging to the same species.