Histopathologic parameters of the primary tumor, such as Breslow's tumor thickness and Clark's level of invasion are the current basis for prognostic classifications of primary cutaneous melanoma. Once patients develop regional node metastasis, histopathologic features of the primary melanoma no longer contribute significantly to survival prediction. In this tumor stage, the extent of lymph node involvement is the main prognostic factor. This study addresses the question whether application of a highly sensitive molecular biology assay for detection of submicroscopic melanoma cells in sentinel lymph nodes may be suitable to improve melanoma staging. One hundred and sixteen patients with primary cutaneous melanoma with a total of 214 sentinel lymph nodes were enrolled. Sentinel lymph nodes were analyzed by histopathology including immunohistochemistry and by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction for tyrosinase. Patients were examined for tumor recurrences during a follow-up period of 19 mo (median). Disease-free survival probabilities were calculated and independent prognostic factors were determined by multivariate analysis. Using histopathology, micrometastatic nodal involvement was detected in 15 patients (13%). Of the 101 patients with histopathologically negative sentinel lymph nodes, 36 were reclassified by positive tyrosinase reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction and 65 patients were still negative by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. Recurrences were observed in 23 (20%) of 116 patients. These tumor recurrences were demonstrated in 10 patients (67%) with histopathologically positive sentinel lymph nodes, in nine patients (25%) with submicroscopic tumor cells detected by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, and in four patients (6%) negative by both methods. The differences in recurrence rates were statistically significant (p = 0.01). In a multivariate analysis, histopathologic and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction status of the sentinel lymph node were demonstrated to be the only significant prognostic factors for predicting disease-free survival. Tyrosinase reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction for the detection of minimal residual melanoma in sentinel lymph nodes is a powerful tool to determine patients who are at increased risk for subsequent metastasis. Moreover, a group of patients with high tumor thickness was identified by negative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction to be at low risk for recurrent disease. These data may have an impact on future tumor classifications of primary cutaneous melanoma.