There are many reports of cell lines being established from human oral squamous-cell carcinomas but apparently none of cell lines from dysplastic or "pre-malignant" oral mucosa. We describe here the isolation and characterization of a cell line, DOK (dysplastic oral keratinocyte), from a piece of dorsal tongue showing epithelial dysplasia. The tissue was obtained from a 57-year-old man who was a heavy smoker prior to the appearance of a white patch on his tongue. Eleven years later a squamous-cell carcinoma developed at the site and was excised. Subsequently the remaining dysplasia was removed, and it was from a piece of this that the primary cell cultures which eventually gave rise to DOK were initiated. The DOK line has been single-cell cloned and is apparently immortal. It grows in the absence of 3T3 feeder cells, is anchorage-dependent for growth and is non-tumorigenic in nude mice. The keratin profile of the cells shows a striking similarity to that of the original tongue dysplasia. The karyotype of DOK is aneuploid and complex. By PCR and oligonucleotide hybridization on dot blots, codons 12, 13 and 61 of Ha-ras, Ki-ras and N-ras in DNA extracted from DOK cells were shown to be normal. Immunohistochemistry showed no abnormal, i.e., elevated expression of the onco-suppressor protein p53. Because of its origin and partially transformed phenotype, DOK presents an opportunity to study whether specific carcinogens associated with tobacco and areca nut can cause malignant transformation of oral keratinocytes in vitro.