Background: Missense germ-line mutations in the RET protooncogene are associated with multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A (MEN 2A). Detection of these mutant alleles in kindred members predicts disease inheritance and provides the basis for preventive thyroidectomy. Methods: A polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based genetic test for the 19 known RET mutations was designed to study 132 members of 7 kindreds with MEN 2A. Haplotypes also were constructed using genetic markers flanking the MEN 2A locus. Plasma calcitonin (CT) concentrations were determined before and after provocative testing. Results: Direct DNA testing and haplotype analysis showed that 21 of 58 kindred members at risk for disease had inherited a mutation in the RET protooncogene associated with MEN 2A. Plasma CT concentrations were elevated in 9 of the 21 family members, but were normal in 12. After genetic counseling, 13 of the 21 kindred members (6 with normal and seven with elevated plasma CT levels), consented to immediate thyroidectomy. In each patient, the resected thyroid gland showed C-cell hyperplasia with or without medullary thyroid carcinoma. There were no metastases to regional lymph nodes, and postoperative stimulated plasma CT levels were normal. Conclusion: The PCR-based direct DNA test for RET mutations is accurate, rapid, and reproducible. For all 132 individuals evaluated, the results of direct DNA analysis were consistent with haplotype studies. The direct test for mutations in the RET protooncogene is the preferred method for screening MEN 2A kindreds. In family members who have inherited a RET mutation, total thyroidectomy is indicated, regardless of the plasma CT values.