DNAs from 22 acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) patients were screened for activated transforming genes using NIH3T3 transfection followed by assay for tumor formation in Nude mice. In four samples an activated N-ras oncogene, and in two samples an activated Ha-ras oncogene were detected in transfectants. Synthetic oligonucleotide probes were used to characterise the mutations in the ras genes. Three samples were found to be mutated to N-ras codon 12 ASP, one to N-ras codon 13 ASP and two to Ha-ras codon 12 VAL. When the corresponding AML DNAs were screened using direct gel hybridisation, the mutant ras genes were detectable in only one case. In two AML samples (82 and 84) with very low percentage blasts (3% and 19%), the absence of mutant ras signal from direct gel hybridisation may be due to the lack of sensitivity of this technique in detecting activated ras in such small fractions of the total DNA. These results illustrate the sensitivity of the in vivo tumour assay in detecting activated ras. When DNA from one of the remaining three AML DNAs was amplified using the polymerase chain reaction method, the mutation present in the transfectant was detected. These findings suggest that even in AMLs with high percentage blasts (40%, 70% and 90%), cells containing mutant ras may comprise only a minor proportion of the major leukaemic clone.