Difficulties in obtaining clinical samples from primary melanomas have meant that most genetic analyses of melanoma have concentrated on cell lines and metastases. Because the Breslow thickness of the primary tumour is the single best prognostic indicator, it is important to identify genetic abnormalities in primary melanomas and relate these changes to the thickness of the lesion. We have investigated 47 sporadic melanomas, of which 41 were primary lesions, for loss of heterozygosity (LOH) on several chromosomal arms, including areas where genes involved in familial melanoma and other relevant hereditary syndromes map, and where LOH has previously been reported in cell lines, or metastatic lesions. LOH was identified at 66 (18%) of 358 informative loci in primary melanomas, and there was a significant relationship between the overall frequency of LOH and Breslow thickness (P < 0.0005). Loss of chromosome arm 9p was most frequent, occurring in 15 (47%) of 32 informative primary tumours, and was observed in 3 of 11 informative lesions < or = 1.5 mm in depth. LOH on chromosome arms 3p, 6q, 10q, 11q, and 17p was also relatively frequent, with loss of 3p and 10q heterozygosity in lesions < or = 1.5 mm in depth, while LOH on 6q, 11q, and 17p was only detected in more invasive tumours. The results suggest that loss of these chromosome regions are important in sporadic cutaneous melanoma, and are consistent with chromosome arm 9p loss occurring before loss of other chromosome arms.