BACKGROUND: The aim of the study was to determine prevalence of potential heterogeneous vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (h-VRSA) among methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) isolated in Korea by using Mu-3 agar and to determine the effect of in vitro vancomycin exposure on the resistance. METHODS: MRSAs isolated in 1980-1999 were screened for the presence of VISA or h-VRSA using Mu-3 agar. MIC of vancomycin was tested by NCCLS agar dilution and broth microdilution tests. Suspected h-VRSA were selected by vancomycin-containing media and change of resistance was determined by population analysis. A strain with Mu50 type growth was serially exposed to 8 pg/ml of vancomycin containing media and change of the vancomycin resistance was determined. RESULTS: Among the 455 MRSA isolates, 18 (3.9 %) grew on selective brain heart infusion agar (BHIA), and 354 (77,8%) on Mu-3 agar, 66 (14.5%) with Mu3 type growth and 78 (17.1%) with Mu50 type growth. MIC of vancomycin was 11 pg/ml for some of the isolates when inocula were approximately 10' CFU, but VISA was not present when tested by NCCLS broth microdilution test. Exposure of the isolates to van-cornycin raised the MIC. Serial exposure once to 8 pg/ml of vancomycin resulted in significant decrease of cells susceptible to 8-12 pg/ml of vancomycin. CONCLUSION: VISA was not present among the test isolates, but 34.2% were suspected to be potential h-VRSAs, suggesting possible emergence of VISA if vancomycin was administered prolonged period. It is considered that suitable screening media are vancomycin containing BHIA for VISA and Mu-3 agar for h-VRSA. The isolates showing Mu50 type growth on Mu-3 agar are not always VISA, but rather h-VRSA.