Our previous studies have shown that human skin cancers occurring on sun-exposed body sites frequently contain activated Ha-ras oncogenes capable of inducing morphologic and tumorigenic transformation of NIH 3T3 cells. In this study, we analyzed human primary squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) and basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) occurring on sun-exposed body sites for mutations in codons 12, 13, and 61 of Ha-ras, Ki-ras, and N-ras oncogenes by amplification of genomic tumor DNAs by the polymerase chain reaction, followed by dot-blot hybridization to synthetic oligonucleotide probes designed to detect single base-pair mutations. In addition to the primary human skin cancers, we also analyzed Ha-ras-positive NIH 3T3 transformants for mutations in the Ha-ras oncogene. The results indicated that all three NIH 3T3 transformants, 11 of 24 (46%) SCCs, and 5 of 16 (31%) BCCs contained mutations at the second position of Ha-ras codon 12 (GGC----GTC), predicting a glycine-to-valine amino acid substitution, whereas only 1 of 40 skin cancers (an SCC) displayed a mutation in the first position of Ki-ras codon 12 (GGT----AGT), predicting a glycine-to-serine amino acid change. In addition, three of the SCCs contained highly amplified copies of the N-ras oncogene in their genomic DNA. Interestingly, two of the SCCs containing amplified N-ras sequences also had G----T mutations in codon 12 of the Ha-ras oncogene. These studies demonstrate that mutations in codon 12 of the Ha-ras oncogene occurred at a high frequency in human skin cancers originating on sun-exposed body sites, whereas mutation in codon 12 of Ki-ras or amplification of N-ras occurred at a low frequency. Since the mutations in the Ha-ras and Ki-ras oncogenes were located opposite potential pyrimidine dimer sites (C-C), it is likely that these mutations were induced by ultraviolet radiation present in sunlight.