Mutations in the K-ras gene are frequently found in lung tumours and are implicated in the development of lung cancer. In order to investigate the clinical usefulness of these mutations in lung cancer, we applied a sensitive method to compare mutations in codon 12 of the K-ras gene in DNA extracted from lung tumours and the matched sputum samples obtained from 22 lung cancer patients. K-ras mutations were identified in the lung tumours of 12 patients (54.5%) and in the sputum samples of 10 patients (45.5%). Nine patients showed an identical mutation in both the tumour and the matched sputum samples. There was a significant association between the presence of a K-ras mutation in a lung tumour and the detection of an identical mutation in the matched sputum sample of the lung cancer patient (kappa = 0.64, 95% confidence interval 0.32-0.95, p <0.01). K-ras mutations were detected in sputum samples from cancer patients with all lung tumour grades, and both in the presence and the absence of lymph node metastasis. Therefore, K-ras mutations may provide useful diagnostic markers for lung cancer.