The enzymological principles of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and of the quantitative competitive PCR (QC-PCR) are developed, proposing a theoretical framework that will facilitate quantification in experimental methodologies. It is demonstrated that the specificity of the QC-PCR, i.e. the ratio of the target initial velocity to that of the competitor template, remains constant not only during a particular amplification but also for increasing initial competitor concentrations. Linear fitting procedures are thus recommended that will enable a quantitative estimate of the initial target concentration. Finally, expressions for the efficiency of the PCR and QC-PCR are derived that are in agreement with previous experimental inferences. (C) 1997 Academic Press Limited.