Germ line mutations of the multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) tumour suppressor gene cause MEN1, a rare familial tumour syndrome associated with parathyroid hyperplasia, adenoma and hyperparathyroidism (HP). Here we investigated the role of the MEN1 gene in isolated sporadic and familial HP. Using RT-PCR single-strand conformational polymorphism screening, somatic (but not germ line) mutations of the MEN1 coding sequence were identified in 6 of 31 (19.3%) adenomas from patients with sporadic primary HP, but none in patients (n=16) with secondary HP due to chronic renal failure. MEN1 mutations were accompanied by a loss of heterozygosity (LOH) for the MEN1 locus on chromosome 11q13 in the adenomas as detected by microsatellite analysis. No DNA sequence divergence within the 5' region of the MEN1 gene, containing the putative MEN1 promoter, was detectable in HP adenomas. Clinical characteristics were not different in HP patients with or without MEN1 mutation. Heterozygous MEN1 gene polymorphisms were identified in 9.6% and 25% of patients with primary and secondary HP respectively. In a large kindred with familial isolated familial HP, MEN1 germ line mutation 249 del4 and LOH was associated with the HP phenotype and a predisposition to non-endocrine malignancies. We suggest that the bi-allelic somatic loss of MEN1 wild-type gene expression is involved in the pathogenesis of a clinically yet undefined subset of sporadic primary HP adenomas. MEN1 genotyping may further help define the familial hyperparathyroidism-MEN1 disease complex, but it seems dispensable in sporadic primary HP.