Both cutaneous and uveal melanoma undergo haematogenous dissemination. Detection of tyrosinase mRNA by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) has been described as an extremely sensitive way of detecting circulating viable melanoma cells in the peripheral venous blood, and this technique may be of value in the early detection of dissemination. Also, it has been suggested that surgical manipulation of the eye, such as occurs during enucleation, can provoke uveal melanoma dissemination. The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether tyrosinase mRNA is detectable in the peripheral blood of patients with uveal and cutaneous melanoma and in patients with uveal melanoma undergoing surgical procedures on the eye harbouring the tumour. Venous blood samples from 36 patients diagnosed as having active uveal melanoma and from six patients with advanced metastatic cutaneous melanoma were analysed. In addition, blood samples were spiked with known numbers of cells from three cell lines and four primary uveal melanoma cultures. The reported sensitivity of the technique was confirmed, with an ability to detect down to one cell per ml of blood. All 51 blood samples from the 36 patients with uveal melanoma were negative, and this included 20 perioperative blood samples. The test was also negative for the six patients with advanced cutaneous melanoma. There were two positives among 31 control samples analysed. This study demonstrates that there are far fewer circulating viable melanocytes than has been previously supposed in patients with melanoma and that the RT-PCR is of no clinical value in detecting metastatic melanoma disease. There was no evidence for surgery causing a bolus of melanoma cells to enter the peripheral circulation.