Inactivation of both alleles of the RB1 gene during normal retinal development initiates the formation of a retinoblastoma (RB) tumor. To identify the mutations which inactivate RB1, 21 RB tumors isolated from 19 patients were analyzed with the polymerase chain reaction or an RNase protection assay or both. Mutations were identified in 13 of 21 RB tumors; in 8 tumors, the precise errors in nucleotide sequence were characterized. Each of four germ line mutations involved a small deletion or duplication, while three somatic mutations were point mutations leading to splice alterations and loss of an exon from the mature RB1 mRNA. We were unable to detect expression of the mutant allele in lymphoblasts of three bilaterally affected patients, although the mutation was present in the genomic DNA and transcripts containing the mutations were obvious in the RB tumors in the absence of a normal RB1 allele. The variations in the level of expression of mutant transcripts suggest deregulation of RB1 transcription in the absence of a functional RB1 gene product.