To explore the role of mutational activation of members of the ras family of cellular protooncogenes in the development of human ovarian neoplasms, a series of 37 ovarian tumors from Japanese patients was studied. These included 30 common epithelial tumors (1 mucinous tumor of borderline malignancy, 7 mucinous adenocarcinomas, and 22 nonmucinous carcinomas: 10 serous, 3 clear cell, 8 endometrioid, and 1 undifferentiated), 5 tumors of germ cell origin, and 2 sex cord/stromal cell tumors. Polymerase chain reaction was performed from selected areas of deparaffinized sections of formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue, and the presence of activating point mutations in codons 12, 13, and 61 of the H-, N-, and K-ras genes was probed by dot-blot hybridization analysis with mutation specific oligonucleotides. Mutations in K-ras were also looked for by direct genomic sequencing. The overall frequency of ras gene mutations was 10/37 (27%). Mutations were detected only in K-ras, and were found in most of the mucinous tumors, including the one such tumor of borderline malignancy (6/8; 75%). In one mucinous adenocarcinoma, two mutations were detected in paraffin-embedded material that had not previously been found in high molecular weight DNA isolated from frozen tissue from the same case. K-ras mutations occurred significantly more frequently in mucinous tumors (6/8, 75%) than in serous carcinomas (2/10, 20%; P = 0.031) or in all nonmucinous types of epithelial ovarian tumors combined (3/22, 14%; P = 0.0031).