The serotonin transporter (5-HTT) is a candidate locus for aetiological involvement in affective disorders. Biochemical studies in suicides and depressed patients suggest that 5-HT uptake function is frequently reduced in affective illness. Furthermore, 5-HTT is targeted by widely used antidepressant drugs such as fluoxetine. We have performed an association study of a short variant of the 5-HTT-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR), which restricts transcriptional activity of the 5-HTT promoter leading to low functional expression of the 5-HTT, in 454 patients with bipolar or unipolar affective disorder and 570 controls, derived from three European Centres (London, Milan and Würzburg). In all three centres, the frequency of the low activity allele was higher in patients than in controls (50% vs 45% in London, 45% vs 43% in Milan, 47% vs 40% in Würzburg). Although these differences were not individually significant, a stratified analysis of all three samples gave a significant overall odds ratio of 1.23 (95% confidence interval 1.02-1.49, P = 0.03). The excess of the homozygous low-activity genotype among the patients was even greater (odds ratio 1.53, 95% confidence interval 1.04-2.23, P = 0.02), suggesting partial recessively of the low-activity allele. Given the functional role of 5-HTT, our findings suggest that 5-HTTLPR-dependent variation in functional 5-HTT expression is a potential genetic susceptibility factor for affective disorders. If this finding is replicated, further work on genetic variants with low 5-HTT activity may facilitate the differential diagnosis of affective disorders, the assessment of suicidal behaviour, and the prediction of good clinical response to antidepressants.