Previous studies have demonstrated that some human endometrial carcinomas contain an activating point mutation in codon 12 of the Ki-ras protooncogene. To examine the hypothesis that this mutation may occur at an earlier stage of neoplastic progression in the endometrium, we analyzed 89 samples of premalignant endometrial hyperplasia and an additional 84 samples of endometrial carcinoma for point mutations of Ki-ras codon 12. Mutations were found in all three types of endometrial hyperplasia, simple, complex, and atypical, with no clear evidence of a differential distribution in any particular type. Furthermore, the overall incidence of Ki-ras mutations in the hyperplasia specimens (16%) was similar to the incidence detected in carcinomas (18%), indicating that ras mutation may represent an early event in a subset of endometrial carcinomas. When the tissue samples were segregated as to country of origin, the frequency of this mutation was approximately 2-fold higher in hyperplasia and carcinoma samples from Japan than from the United States, where the incidence, clinicopathological characteristics, and risk factors for endometrial carcinoma differ dramatically. There was no apparent correlation, however, between ras mutation and any pathological, histological, or clinical parameter examined, except survival. The presence of a ras mutation was inversely associated with death from disease, suggesting that this molecular feature may characterize a subset of endometrial carcinomas with a good prognosis.