A tumor suppressor gene at 10q 23.3, designated PTEN, encoding a dual specificity phosphatase with lipid and protein phosphatase activity, has been shown to play an important role in the pathogenesis of a variety of human cancers. Germline mutations in PTEN cause Cowden syndrome (CS), which is characterized by multiple hamartomas and a high risk of breast and thyroid cancers. Frequent loss of heterozygosity at 10q is found in both early and advanced-stage sporadic melanomas; however, mutations or deletions in PTEN are detected mainly in melanoma cell lines. In this study, we examined PTEN expression in 34 unselected sporadic melanomas (4 primary melanomas, 30 metastases) using immunohistochemistry and correlated this with the results of structural studies of this gene. Immunostaining of 34 melanoma samples revealed no PTEN expression in 5 (15%) and low PTEN expression in 17 (50%), whereas the rest of the tumors (35%) had high levels of expression. Hemizygous deletion was found in 32% of the tumors but neither intragenic PTEN mutation nor biallelic deletion was found in any of the samples. Of the 5 melanomas showing no PTEN expression, 4 had no mutation or deletion of PTEN. Of the 13 tumors having weak PTEN immunoreactivity and informative loss of heterozygosity results, 6 had evidence of hemizygous allelic loss of PTEN while the remaining 7 had intact PTEN. These results strongly support PTEN as a major tumor suppressor on 10q involved in melanoma tumorigenesis and suggest an epigenetic mechanism of biallelic functional inactivation not previously observed in other cancers where PTEN might be involved.