To investigate the nature of somatic von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) mutations, we analyzed 173 primary sporadic human renal cell carcinomas for mutations of the VHL tumor suppressor gene, using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and single-strand conformational polymorphism analysis (SSCP) of DNA. We detected abnormal SSCP pattern in 73 samples. After sequencing, we identified microdeletions in 58% of cases, microinsertions in 17%, nonsense mutations in 8%, and missense mutations in 17%. Among these mutations, 50% correspond to new mutations. VHL mutations were found only in the nonpapillary renal cell carcinoma (RCC) subtype, as previously reported. To compare somatic and germline mutations, we used the VHL database, which includes 507 mutations. The study of mutational events revealed a significant difference between somatic and germline mutations with mutations leading to truncated proteins observed in 78% of somatic mutations vs only 37% in germline mutations (P < 0.001). We postulated that a specific pattern of VHL mutations is associated with sporadic RCC. This pattern corresponds to mutations leading mainly to truncated proteins with few specific missense mutations. We then analyzed the occurrence of RCC in VHL families, based on the nature of mutations. We observed RCC in at least one member of the VHL families in 77% of cases with mutations leading to truncated proteins versus 55% in cases with missense mutations (P < 0.05). Thus, mutations resulting in truncated proteins may lead to a higher risk of RCC in VHL patients.