DNA was extracted from unstained 5-microns sections of neutral buffered 10% formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue by proteinase K digestion without detergents followed by boiling, proteinase K digestion with ionic detergents with and without phenol chloroform extraction and ethanol precipitation, sonication with proteinase K followed by boiling, or boiling alone. Serial 1:10 dilutions of the extracted DNA were subject to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of a 255-bp portion of the p53 gene. Digestion with proteinase K without ionic detergents followed by boiling (without phenol chloroform extraction) gave the best yield, enabling visualization of ethidium bromide-stained PCR product from a DNA dilution corresponding to 0.1 mm2 of tissue containing of the order of 10(3) nuclear profiles. Proteinase K digestion with detergents followed by phenol-chloroform extraction was no more effective than simple boiling. Although the success of PCR from preserved tissue will vary with the fixative and size of the amplified fragment, DNA extracted with this optimized method can be used for identification of viruses, loss of heterozygosity, and immunoglobulin gene rearrangements in paraffin-embedded tissue without radioisotopes.