To define the role of cellular oncogenes in human cancers, we studied the prevalence of mutational activation of ras oncogenes in untreated non-small-cell lung cancer. Genomic DNA was extracted from 39 tumor specimens obtained by thoracotomy and was examined for activating point mutations in codons 12, 13, and 61 of the H-ras, K-ras, and N-ras genes. A novel, highly sensitive assay based on oligonucleotide hybridization following an in vitro amplification step was employed. The K-ras gene was found to be activated by point mutations in codon 12 in 5 of 10 adenocarcinomas. Two of these tumors were less than 2 cm in size and had not metastasized. No ras gene mutations were observed in 15 squamous-cell carcinomas, 10 large-cell carcinomas, 1 carcinoid, 2 metastatic adenocarcinomas from primary tumors outside the lung, and 1 small-cell carcinoma. An approximately 20-fold amplification of the unmutated K-ras gene was observed in a tumor that proved to be a solitary lung metastasis of a rectal carcinoma. We conclude that mutational K-ras activation may be an important early event in the pathogenesis of adenocarcinoma of the lung but that amplification of ras genes or mutational activation of H-ras or N-ras does not play a major part in non-small-cell lung cancer.