Renal cysts and clear cell renal cell carcinoma are common clinical manifestations of people with germ-line mutations of the von Hippel-Lindau tumor suppressor gene, VHL. Recent cell biological evidence suggests that the VHL gene product, pVHL, functions to maintain the primary cilium, a microtubule-based antenna-like structure whose functional integrity is believed to have an important role in cell-cycle control. As VHL mutations are common in sporadic clear cell renal cell carcinoma, but not papillary renal cell carcinoma, we asked whether there is an association between VHL status and primary cilia in vivo. VHL status was assessed in 20 cases of clear cell renal cell carcinoma and 9 cases of papillary renal cell carcinoma by DNA sequencing and by immunohistochemical staining for the hypoxia-inducible factor-alpha target gene products CA9 and GLUT-1. Of 20, 18 clear cell renal cell carcinomas, but only 1 of 9 papillary renal cell carcinomas, displayed evidence of VHL inactivation. In clear cell renal cell carcinoma the frequency of ciliated tumor cells ranged from 0 to 22% (median value 7.8+/-6.0%), whereas cilia frequency was significantly higher (P<0.0001) in papillary renal cell carcinoma (range 12-83%, median value 43.3+/-21.3%). There was no correlation between Ki-67 staining and cilia frequency, suggesting that the observed differences between the tumor types in cilia frequency are not accounted for by differences in cellular proliferation rates and that primary cilia degeneration in sporadic clear cell renal cell carcinoma depends on VHL inactivation. We propose that the different ciliation status of clear cell and papillary renal cell carcinoma may contribute, at least in part, to the different biological behaviors of these tumor types.