In contrast to the hereditary form of medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC), little is known about the etiology of sporadic MTC. Somatic gain-of-function mutations in the RET proto-oncogene, encoding a receptor tyrosine kinase, are found in an average of 40% of sporadic MTC. We analysed 31 sporadic MTC for somatic and germline variants in GFRA1, GFRA2 and GFRA3 which encode the co-receptors of RET. Although there were no somatic mutations in any of the three genes, a sequence variant (-193C>G) in the 5'-UTR of GFRA1 was found in 15% of cases. Three patients were heterozygous (het); another three patients homozygous (hom) for the G variant. The G allele was not observed in 31 race-matched normal controls. Hence, the relative frequency of this variant in sporadic MTC cases and controls differed significantly (P<0.05). Since this variant lies in the 5' UTR, likely at the transcriptional start site, we analysed for differential expression of GFRalpha-1 at the transcript and protein levels. At the mRNA level, GFRA1 was over-expressed in tumors harboring the rare variant (P=0.06). The presence of the G polymorphic allele seemed to be associated with increased expression by immunostaining for GFRalpha-1. Interestingly, cytoplasmic staining was stronger in intensity for het patients and nuclear staining predominant in hom cases. In conclusion, mutation analysis of GFRA1, GFRA2 and GFRA3 revealed over-representation of a rare variant in GFRA1 (-193C>G) in the germline of sporadic MTC cases. Our data suggest that the mechanism is related to over-expression of GFRalpha-1 and differential subcellular compartmentalization but the precise mechanism as to how it acts as a low penetrance susceptibility allele for the development of sporadic MTC remains to be elucidated.