The ganglioside composition of 20 human malignant melanomas and 5 normal tissues (muscle, spleen, kidney, liver and brain) was analyzed by high-performance thin-layer chromatography (HPTLC) and immune HPTLC using a panel of antiganglioside monoclonal antibodies, and quantified by photodensitometry. The most prominent gangliosides were GM3 and GD3, present in all 20 melanomas; however these were expressed in the 5 normal tissues as well. GD2, GM2, GT3 and 9-O-Ac-GD3 were each expressed in at least 17 of 20 melanomas, but distribution on the normal tissues examined was largely restricted to brain. The detection of several additional glycolipids was studied. GMI was highly expressed in normal brain tissue, but was not detected in any melanoma biopsies, and SGPG was detected in neither. Fuc-GMI was identified in 3 melanoma specimens and a base-sensitive ganglioside, not previously identified in melanoma, was detected in 4 of 20 melanomas with the anti-GD2 MAb 3F8. This compound is most likely O-acetylated GD2. GD3 lactones were identified in 16 of 20 melanoma biopsies, however the proportion that are naturally occurring rather than artifacts of extraction is unclear. The total expression of the more restricted gangliosides (GM2, GD2, GT3 and 9-O-Ac-GD3) in these 20 melanomas ranged between 2.4 and 102.5 micrograms/g, representing 8 x 10(6) to 3 x 10(8) ganglioside molecules per cell. This number of tumor-surface antigens provides the rationale for a polyvalent anti-melanoma vaccine containing GM2, GD2, GT3 and 9-O-Ac-GD3.