Atypical alveolar hyperplasia (AAH) is a potential precursor lesion from which lung adenocarcinomas arise and may be a good target for studying the early events of lung tumorigenesis. A common genetic alteration in lung adenocarcinomas is mutational activation of K-ras. To determine the timing of K-ras activation, we evaluated formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded tissue samples of 41 AAHs and their paired lung neoplasms from 28 patients for codon 12 point mutations of the K-ras oncogene. K-ras codon 12 mutations were detected using PCR followed by allele-specific oligonucleotide hybridization. Mutations were found in 16 (39%) of the 41 AAHs, 8 (42%) of the 18 adenocarcinomas, and none (0%) of the 5 lung neoplasms that were not adenocarcinomas. Of the 18 patients with both an AAH and a synchronous lung adenocarcinoma, 6 had K-ras mutation in the adenocarcinoma but not in the AAH, 6 had mutations in the AAH but not in the adenocarcinoma, 4 did not harbor mutations in either the AAH or the adenocarcinoma, and 2 had mutations in both their AAH and their synchronous adenocarcinoma. In just 1 of the 18 patients was the same K-ras mutation present in the AAHs and adenocarcinoma of the patient. The detection of independent activating point mutations in a cancer-causing gene points to the neoplastic nature of AAH and suggests that glandular neoplasms of the lung arise from a background of field cancerization.