The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis was used to study patterns of immunoglobulin heavy chain (IgH) gene rearrangement (GR) in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded specimens of lymphomas and reactive conditions of mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) and lymph node. DNA amplification was performed directly on sections obtained from paraffin blocks. Five patterns of PCR products were observed: a single band, two or more discrete bands, smearing, a single band overlying a smear, and two or more bands over a smear. A pure polyclonal pattern (smear) was observed in all of the reactive lymph nodes but in only 15% of cases of Helicobacter pylori (HP) gastritis with lymphoid hyperplasia, 25% of cases of HP gastritis without lymphoid hyperplasia, and 37% of colonic specimens of various types. Patterns consisting of multiple bands with or without background smearing were common in gastritis, colitis, and gastric lymphomas. Single bands or dominant bands were present in all lymph node and salivary gland lymphomas, 12 of 14 cases of gastric lymphoma, and 17 of 20 cases of HP gastritis with lymphoid hyperplasia. These bands were reproducible in deeper sections from the same paraffin block or similar areas sampled in different blocks in all of the lymph node and salivary gland lymphomas, 11 of 12 gastric lymphomas, but only 1 of 17 cases of HP gastritis with lymphoid hyperplasia. Bands were also found in 3 of 20 cases of HP gastritis without lymphoid hyperplasia and 17 of 38 colonic specimens, but these were not reproducible. The complexity of patterns of IgH GR in acquired MALT compared with lymph nodes may be the result of a relative paucity of B-cell clones or preferential proliferation of B-cell clones with a limited area of distribution.