Thyroid follicular adenomas and adenomatous thyroid nodules are a frequent finding in geographical areas with iodine deficiency. They occur as hypofunctioning (scintigraphically cold) or hyperfunctioning (scintigraphically hot) nodules. Their predominant clonal origin suggests that they result from clonal expansion of a single cell, which is very likely the result of a prolonged increase in proliferation compared with non-affected surrounding cells. To test whether increased cell proliferation is detectable in cold thyroid nodules, we studied paraffin-embedded tissue from 40 cold thyroid nodules and their surrounding normal thyroid tissue for the occurrence of the proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) and Ki-67 (MIB-1 antibody) epitopes as markers for cell proliferation. All 40 thyroid nodules were histologically well characterized and have been studied for molecular characteristics before. The labeling index (number of labeled cells versus total cell number) for nodular and surrounding tissue was calculated. In 33 cold thyroid nodules a significant (p < or = 0.05) increase in the labeling index for PCNA was detectable. In 19 cold thyroid nodules a significant (p < or = 0.05) increase in the labeling index for Ki-67 was detectable. Moreover, surrounding tissues with lymphocyte infiltration showed a significantly higher labeling index for both PCNA and Ki-67 compared with normal surrounding tissue. These findings are first evidence that an increased thyroid epithelial cell proliferation is a uniform feature common to most cold nodules. However, the increase of proliferation markers shows a heterogeneity that is not correlated with histopathologic, molecular, or clinical characteristics.