Several frequently applied polymerase chain reaction strategies for analysis of immunoglobulin heavy-chain gene rearrangements were compared by analyzing 70 B-cell lymphoproliferative disorders and 24 reactive lymphoid lesions. Southern blot analysis was used as the "gold standard" for clonality assessment. For polymerase chain reaction analysis, primers directed against framework (FR) 3 (FR3-A and FR3-B), FR2, and FR1 of the variable gene segments and against joining gene segments of the immunoglobulin heavy-chain gene were used. Polymerase chain reaction products were analyzed by high-resolution fingerprinting analysis using radiolabeled nucleotides, gene scanning using fluorochrome-labeled primers, and heteroduplex analysis. All of the assays generated polyclonal patterns in the reactive tissues. The sensitivity in detecting monoclonality as defined by Southern blotting varied between 60% (heteroduplex analysis with FR3 primers) and 77% (high-resolution fingerprinting analysis with FR2 primers). Comparison of the three FR3 assays revealed that gene scanning had the highest sensitivity (69%), probably because it could detect small aberrant monoclonal amplicons. False-negative results were especially frequent in follicular center lymphoma (n = 20), but also in diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (n = 18), both renowned for having mutated variable gene segments, potentially leading to primer mismatching. For example, in follicular center lymphoma, the FR3, FR2, and FR1 region primer sets detected clonality in only 35 to 40, 65, and 50%, respectively. Combining these techniques, 17 (85%) of 20 follicular center lymphoma samples showed monoclonality. Therefore, especially in follicular center lymphoma, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, and, to a lesser extent, in other lymphomas, multiple variable gene segment primer sets must be used for a reliable assessment of clonality. Our results also suggest that gene scanning is somewhat more sensitive than other read-out systems. Heteroduplex analysis, however, is a reliable alternative within a diagnostic setting, avoiding the use of radioactivity or expensive automated sequencing equipment and fluorochrome-labeled (oligo)nucleotides.