Since DNA methylation is considered an important mechanism for silencing of retroelements in the mammalian genome, hypomethylation in human tumours may lead to their reactivation. The methylation status of LINE-1 retroposons was determined in 73 samples of urinary bladder cancers, 34 specimens of renal cell carcinoma and in the corresponding normal tissues by Southern blot analysis. LINE-1 sequences were strongly methylated in normal tissues and were significantly hypomethylated in 69 (95%) urothelial carcinomas, but in none of the renal carcinomas. Hypomethylation in bladder cancers was independent of stage and tended to increase with grade. The methylation status of HERV-K proviral DNA in normal and transformed urothelial cells paralleled that of LINE-1 sequences (r2 = 0.87). It was shown by ligation-mediated polymerase chain reaction that hypomethylation also extended to the LINE-1 promoter sequence located at the 5'-ends of full-length elements which is repressed by methylation in somatic tissues. Accordingly, full-length LINE-1 transcripts were detected by Northern blot analysis in two urothelial carcinoma cell lines. In contrast, transcripts from HERV-K proviruses were restricted to teratocarcinoma cell lines. Our data indicate that genome-wide DNA hypomethylation is an early change in urothelial carcinoma, but is absent from renal cell carcinoma. The coordinate changes of LINE-1 and HERV-K DNA methylation suggest that hypomethylation in urothelial cancer affects a variety of different retroelements to similar extents. We speculate that decreased methylation of LINE-1 retroelements, in particular, may contribute to genomic instability in specific human tumours such as urothelial carcinoma by rendering these normally repressed sequences competent for transcription and recombination.