Using in vitro gene amplification by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and mutation detection by the RNAase A mismatch cleavage method, we have examined c-K-ras genes in human pancreatic carcinomas. We used frozen tumor specimens and single 5 micron sections from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tumor tissue surgically removed or obtained at autopsy. Twenty-one out of 22 carcinomas of the exocrine pancreas contained c-K-ras genes with mutations at codon 12. In seven cases tested, the mutation was present in both primary tumors and their corresponding metastases. No mutations were detected in normal tissue from the same cancer patients or in five gall bladder carcinomas. We conclude from these results that c-K-ras somatic mutational activation is a critical event in the oncogenesis of most, if not all, human cancers of the exocrine pancreas.