Mutations in the ras genes are key events in the process of carcinogenesis; in particular, point mutations in codon 61 of exon 2 of the N-ras gene occur frequently in cutaneous melanoma. To investigate whether these mutations occur in early or late tumor progression phases, we searched for point mutations in the N- and K-ras genes in 69 primary cutaneous melanoma, 35 metastases, and seven nevocellular nevi in association with cutaneous melanoma. Lesions were microdissected in order to procure pure tumor samples from the distinctive growth phases of the cutaneous melanoma; the very sensitive denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis technique was used to visualize the mutations, and was followed by sequencing. Point mutations in the N-ras gene but not in the K-ras gene were detected on denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis. Twenty-three primary (33%) and nine metastatic (26%) melanomas showed bandshifts for N-ras. In the majority of cases, mutations occurring in early growth phases (i.e., the "intraepidermal" radial growth phase), were preserved in later growth phases (i.e., the invasive radial growth phase, vertical growth phase, and metastatic phase), which proves the clonal relationship between the successive growth phases. In three cases, however, the mutations differed between the distinctive growth phases within the same cutaneous melanoma, due to the occurrence of an additional mutation (especially in codon 61) in a later tumor progression phase. Our approach also permitted us to analyze the mutational status of nevi, associated with cutaneous melanoma. Six out of seven associated nevi carried the same sequence (mutated or wild-type) as the primary cutaneous melanoma, whereas in one case the sequence for N-ras differed between the primary melanoma and the associated nevus. In conclusion, this approach allowed us to demonstrate the clonal relationship between subsequent growth phases of melanoma and associated nevi; our results suggest that N-ras exon 1 mutations preferentially occur during early stages of tumor progression and hence may be involved in melanoma initiation, whereas those in N-ras exon 2 are found preferentially during later stages and hence are more probably involved in metastatic spread of cutaneous melanoma.