Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a clustering of breast and prostate cancers in some families. Moreover, there is an increase in the number of cases of prostate cancer in families with inherited mutations of the breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA1. We assessed the role of BRCA1 and BRCA2 in prostate cancer. We tested for the BRCA1 185delAG frameshift mutation, found in 0.9% of Ashkenazi Jews, and the BRCA2 6174delT mutation, found in 1% of Ashkenazi Jews, in Ashkenazi Jewish men with prostate cancer. We studied 60 Ashkenazi men with prostate cancer. A family history was obtained by interview or a self-report questionnaire. Histological confirmation of diagnosis was obtained for all subjects. Ethnic background was confirmed for all subjects by self-report or interview. Mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 were detected by amplification of lymphocyte DNA from peripheral blood according to standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and dot blot procedures. Patients' ages ranged from 55 to 80 years (mean +/- s.d. 70 +/- 5.25). There were six men with a family history of prostate cancer; three of these had a father with prostate cancer. Five of the men had a family history of breast cancer, in a mother, a sister or an aunt. None of the men had a family history of both breast and prostate cancer. None of the 60 men carried the 185delAG BRCA1 or 6174delT BRCA2 mutations. Of 268 Ashkenazi Jewish women with sporadic breast cancer, tested in an unrelated study, 16 carried either the 185delAG mutation of BRCA1 or the 6174delT mutation of BRCA2. There was a significant difference in the incidence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations in the breast and prostate cancer cases (P = 0.05, two-tailed Fisher's exact test). The contribution of germline BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations to prostate cancer incidence is probably small and could be limited to specific subgroups.