Over-expression of cellular protooncogenes has been proposed to function in the initiation and maintenance of malignancies. In order to distinguish malignant lymphoma from reactive proliferative diseases, we surveyed the expression levels of three protooncogenes(c-myc, c-fos and c-myb) in malignant lymphoma and reactive proliferative diseases. An increased level of c-myc or c-fos mRNA was observed in one case, respectively, out of three malignant lymphomata. The other cases exhibited no enhancement in protooncogenes. These oncogenes are critically regulated during differentiation, but the half-life of c-myc mRNA was very short, and the level of the mRNA decreased to the initial level very quickly. Thus, the high level of the expression of these oncogenes may not always be maintained in all malignant cells. We then examined the level of mRNA for poly(ADP-ribose) synthetase in those cases. An enhanced expression for the synthetase gene was observed in all five malignant lymphomata tested, but no increase in the level of the mRNA was observed in any reactive proliferative cases or normal lymph nodes. These results suggest that enhanced expression of poly(ADP-ribose) synthetase gene seems to be a common characteristic of protopathic malignant lymphoma. By using the characteristics of malignant lymphoma, the level of mRNA for the synthetase may be applicable for differential diagnosis of malignant lymphoma from several pathologically indistinguishable diseases.