Multiple endocrine neoplasia types 2A and 2B (MEN2A and MEN2B) and familial medullary thyroid carcinomas (FMTC) are caused by germline mutations in the RET proto-oncogene. To investigate the spectrum of RET mutations among Japanese patients, we screened the RET gene in 71 patients with thyroid carcinomas. The panel included representatives of 44 families carrying FMTC or MEN2, 22 sporadic medullary thyroid carcinomas (MTCs), and five MTCs without familial information. Mutations in nucleotide sequences encoding one of three specific cysteine residues in the extracellular domain of the RET protein were found in 33 of the 34 MEN2A patients and in five of the six FMTC patients examined. A mutation at codon 918, causing the substitution of threonine for methionine in the tyrosine kinase domain of the protein, was found in germline DNAs of all four patients with MEN2B and in two of the 22 patients with sporadic MTCs; codon 918 was mutated somatically in tumor DNAs from three other sporadic cases. Germline mutations of codon 768, GAG to GAC (Glu to Asp), were detected in one FMTC, in one patient with sporadic MTC, and in one of the patients without familial information. Two somatic mutations, an Asp to Gly substitution at codon 631 and a Cys to Arg substitution at codon 634, had not been reported previously. Of five germline mutations found among the 22 sporadic cases, four were confirmed as de novo mutations since in each case neither parent carried the mutation. As nearly one-fourth of the patients with sporadic MTCs carried germline mutations and 50% of their children are expected to develop MTC and other endocrine tumors, these results indicated the importance of careful clinical surveillance of family members of any patient with MTC.