We screened a panel of 103 human lung cancer cell lines for the presence of point mutations at codons 12, 13 or 61 of the human K-, H- and N-ras genes, using restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLP), created through mismatched primers during polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of genomic DNA. We found ras mutations in 22/61 (36%) non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines, predominantly in K-ras codon 12. Identical mutations were present in uncultured tumor materials corresponding to 11 cell lines containing mutated ras genes. ras mutations were found not only in adenocarcinoma cell lines (9/32, 28%), but also in cell lines derived from other types of NSCLC (13/29, 45%). In contrast, none of 37 small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) cell lines and five extra-pulmonary small-cell cancer cell lines had ras mutations. ras mutations were not correlated with sex of the patients, tumor extent, prior therapy status or in vitro culture time. G to T or A to T transversions were the most common base substitutions, occurring in codons 12 and 61 respectively. We conclude that ras mutations play a role in the pathogenesis of a subset of NSCLC but are not involved in SCLC.