Patients with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease develop a spectrum of bilateral clear-cell renal lesions including cysts and renal cell carcinomas (RCCs). VHL gene deletions have been previously reported in VHL-associated macroscopic RCC. Although histological analysis suggests that microscopic cystic lesions in the VHL patients may represent precursors of the RCC, there is at present no direct molecular evidence of their relationship. To investigate the relationship between cystic lesions and RCC, 26 microdissected archival renal lesions from two VHL disease patients were studied for loss of heterozygosity at the VHL gene locus using polymerase chain reaction single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis. The renal lesions included 2 benign cysts, 5 atypical cysts, 5 microscopic RCCs in situ, 5 cysts lined by a single layer of cells, in which RCCs in situ were developing, and 2 microscopic and 7 macroscopic RCCs. Except for a single benign cyst, 25 of 26 renal lesions showed nonrandom allelic loss of the VHL gene. In either of the 2 patients, the same VHL allele was deleted in all of the lesions tested, indicating loss of the wild-type allele and retention of the inherited, mutated VHL allele. The results suggest that all clear-cell lesions in the VHL kidney represent neoplasms and that the loss of the VHL gene occurs early in their development. Atypical and benign cysts most likely represent the initial phenotype in malignant transformation to the RCC.