The presence of regional lymph node metastases is one of the most significant prognostic factors for predicting survival in patients with clinical stage I or II cutaneous melanoma. For accurate staging of the primary tumor a sensitive technique is required to detect occult nodal micrometastases. This prospective diagnostic study was designed to evaluate the incidence of nodal micrometastases using nested reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) for tyrosinase in comparison to immunohistochemical examination. Furthermore, the incidence of melanoma micrometastases detected by RT-PCR was analysed in correlation to major prognostic factors. A total of 466 regional lymph nodes from 79 patients with primary cutaneous melanoma (tumor thickness > 0.75 mm) were investigated. In 49 lymph nodes from 31 patients immunohistochemistry demonstrated melanoma metastases. Using tyrosinase RT-PCR, nodal micrometastases were detected in 136 lymph nodes from 52 patients including all lymph nodes positive by immunohistochemical examination. Out of the 417 lymph nodes negative by immunohistochemistry, 87 nodes (21%) were identified to express tyrosinase by the RT-PCR technique. Among the 48 patients negative by immunohistochemical assessment, 21 (44%) had nodal micrometastases (n = 40) using RT-PCR. All 68 lymph nodes from 46 non-melanoma patients serving as negative controls for tyrosinase RT-PCR were negative. The detection of melanocytic nodal micrometastases by tyrosinase RT-PCR is a highly specific method with a sensitivity significantly higher than that achieved by immunohistochemistry (p < 0.0001). Patients with nodal micrometastases identified exclusively by RT-PCR had significantly higher tumor thickness as compared to patients with negative results by RT-PCR (p < 0.01).