Mutational activation and overexpression of the family of ras proto-oncogenes have been associated with many human tumors. The role of mutations of H-ras, K-ras, and N-ras, as well as expression of the respective protein products (p21s) in normal mucosa, dysplastic mucosa, and squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) of the head and neck has not been fully described. In our study, 51 tumors (40 paraffin embedded and 11 fresh frozen) were examined to determine if mutational activation of ras is an important molecular event in head and neck SCC. Analyses of codons 12, 13, and 61 of H-ras, K-ras, and N-ras revealed no mutations, suggesting that mutational activation of ras is not important in the majority of head and neck SCCs. Immunocytochemistry (ICC) was used to define the expression of H-ras, K-ras, and N-ras in normal mucosa, dysplastic mucosa, and SCC of the head and neck and to determine if expression of ras family members correlated with early or late events in the development of SCC. Expression of p21N-ras in nine samples of histologically normal head and neck mucosa revealed moderate staining in the basal proliferative layers with progressively less staining as cells matured. The most superficial layers of normal mucosa failed to express p21N-ras. A low level of p21H-ras was expressed in all layers of normal mucosa while K-ras was not expressed. ICC of SCC tumor sections revealed cytoplasmic expression of N-ras in nine of nine tumors, H-ras in five of nine tumors, and K-ras in one of nine tumors. Expression of H-ras, K-ras, and N-ras in head and neck SCC was not related to histologic differentiation or TNM staging; however, p21N-ras was overexpressed in seven of nine tumors. Furthermore, the pattern of N-ras expression in dysplastic lesions revealed expression in all layers of the mucosa in contrast to normal mucosa, which expresses p21N-ras primarily in the basal proliferative layer. The change in p21N-ras expression pattern in dysplastic mucosa and its overexpression in the majority of tumors suggest that loss of control of N-ras expression may be an early step in carcinogenesis of head and neck SCC.