Point mutations in codon 12 of the K-ras oncogene are frequent in human lung adenocarcinomas. To study the expression of the K-ras gene in these tumors we have developed a mRNA detection technique based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). By this technique, K-ras expression can be detected semi-quantitatively in samples of less than 100 ng total RNA. Hybridization of the amplified cDNA sequences with mutation-specific oligonucleotides allows separate quantification of the expression of normal and point-mutated alleles in a single sample. RNA samples from 24 human non-small-cell lung carcinomas (NSCLC), from 2 lung metastases of colonic adenocarcinomas, from 3 human lung adenocarcinoma cell lines, and from normal lung tissue were analyzed. In most tumors, expression of K-ras was detected at levels equal to or several times higher than those found in normal lung tissue. A lung metastasis from a colon adenocarcinoma, known to contain an amplified K-ras gene, highly over-expressed the K-ras gene. In those tumors in which the K-ras oncogene was activated by a point mutation, both alleles of the gene were expressed. Our results show that a high over-expression of K-ras is a rare event in human lung carcinomas, but that a certain degree of over-expression of the mutated allele can be demonstrated in tumors with an activated K-ras gene. With the technique we describe here, adequate estimation of the expression of specific genes in minimal amounts of tumor cells becomes possible.