We studied the precore DNA sequences of hepatitis B viral genomes in five patients with fulminant hepatitis B and in five with acute self-limited hepatitis B from Japan. Using the polymerase chain reaction, three to four independent HBV DNA clones from each patient were obtained and analyzed. We demonstrated that patients with fulminant hepatitis B carried HBV genomes with a G to A mutation at nucleotide positions 1898 (five of five patients; 18 of 18 clones, 100%) and 1901 (five of five patients; 12 of 18 clones, 66%) in the precore region. The first mutation results in an in-phase stop codon (TAG) in the precore open reading frame and the absence of HBeAg production. In contrast, a G to A mutation was found in 6 of 16 clones (37%) in position 1898 and in 0 of 16 clones (0%) in position 1901 from patients with acute self-limited hepatitis. We concluded that both of the precore mutations are commonly associated with fulminant hepatitis B and may contribute to the pathogenesis of fulminant hepatitis. A hypothetical model for the biological significance of these two mutations is proposed.