Increased levels of DNA fragments have frequently been found in the blood plasma of cancer patients. Published data suggest that only a fraction of the DNA in blood plasma is derived from cancer cells. However, it is not known how much of the circulating DNA is from cancer or from noncancer cells. By quantitative methylation-specific PCR of the promoter region of the CDKN2A tumor suppressor gene, we were able to quantify the fraction of plasma DNA derived from tumor cells. In the plasma samples of 30 unselected cancer patients, we detected quantities of tumor DNA from only 3% to as much as 93% of total circulating DNA. We investigated possible origins of nontumor DNA in the plasma and demonstrate here a contribution of T-cell DNA in a few cases only. To investigate the possibility that plasma DNA originates from apoptotic or necrotic cells, we performed studies with apoptotic (staurosporine) and necrotic (staurosporine plus oligomycin) cells in vitro and with mice after induction of apoptotic (anti-CD95) or necrotic (acetaminophen) liver injury. Increasing amounts of DNA were found to be released in the supernatants of cells and in the blood plasma samples of treated animals. A clear discrimination of apoptotic and necrotic plasma DNA was possible by gel electrophoresis. The same characteristic patterns of DNA fragments could be identified in plasma derived from different cancer patients. The data are consistent with the possibility that apoptotic and necrotic cells are a major source for plasma DNA in cancer patients.