The clinical significance of detecting supposed tumour cell-derived mRNA transcripts in blood using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) remains unclear. We have used a fully quantitative 5'-nuclease RT-PCR assay to screen for the expression of cytokeratins (ck) 19 and 20 and guanylyl cyclase C (GCC) in the peripheral blood of 21 healthy controls and 27 colorectal cancer patients. Expression of cytokeratin 19 and 20 mRNA was detected in 30% and 100% of samples, respectively, taken from healthy volunteers. There was no apparent difference in ck19 and ck20 mRNA transcription levels between controls and patients, or between patients with different Dukes' stages. While GCC mRNA was detected in only 1/21 control samples, it was expressed in approximately 80% of patients, although again there was no correlation between GCC levels and disease stage. Transcription levels of all three markers varied considerably between samples, even between samples taken from the same person at different times. We conclude that neither ck19 nor ck20 are reliable markers for the detection of colon epithelial cells in peripheral blood and that an evaluation of the usefulness of GCC awaits further longitudinal studies.