The most sensitive screening technique for genes that predispose patients for particular cancers is direct sequencing. However, sequencing of complex genes is technically demanding, costly and time-consuming. We have tested alternate screening techniques to find a fast sensitive method for detecting alterations of DNA in the large BRCA1 gene prior to sequencing. Sequencing of this gene is particularly arduous because it lacks clearly defined mutation sites. The single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) technique is one of the most frequently used pre-screening methods but its sensitivity and efficiency is not completely satisfying. We have compared the SSCP assay with a newly developed technique called denaturing high performance liquid chromatography (DHPLC) to screen the BRCAl gene. We studied 23 patients at high risk for early onset breast and ovarian cancer and four controls. In these patients, a total of 113 fragments with sequence variations in the BRCA1 gene could be identified. The DHPLC technique resolved 100% of the DNA alterations that were observed in cycle sequencing. In contrast, mutation analysis by SSCP accounted for 94% of the detected variations. In addition, DHPLC screening allowed us to discriminate between different alterations in a single fragment, because of the characteristic elution profiles of the DNA molecules. Polymorphisms that were present in our samples could be predicted by means of DHPLC testing independently of sequence analysis. We conclude that DHPLC is a highly potent screening method for genetic analyses. It is highly sensitive, efficient and economical and can be automated.