Pmel17/gp100-encoded tumor-associated antigens are recognized by cytotoxic T lymphocytes in melanoma patients and may represent attractive target antigens for immuno- and gene-therapeutic strategies. An important prerequisite for identification and monitoring of melanoma patients that could potentially benefit from Pmel17/gp100-based immuno- and gene-therapies is the detailed knowledge of Pmel17/gp100 expression in vivo. Immunophenotyping is considerably hampered by the different immunoreactivities of Pmel17/gp100-reactive antibodies. Therefore, we analyzed an extended series of different primary normal and malignant human tumor specimens for Pmel17/gp100 expression at the mRNA level. Transcripts were detectable in all malignant melanoma tissue specimens representing all stages of tumor progression, with significant levels even in early and amelanotic melanoma lesions. In contrast, normal melanocytes exhibited significantly less Pmel17/gp100 mRNA in vivo, as determined by comparative in situ hybridization. Tissue specimens from the retina and substantia nigra also contained Pmel17/gp100 mRNA, whereas other normal and malignant human tissues were negative. As determined by comparative in situ hybridisation and HMB-45 immunostaining, even tumor tissue lacking Pmel17/gp100 immunoreactivity contained Pmel17/gp100 transcripts. Our results indicate a melanocytic-cell-lineage-restricted expression of Pmel17/gp100 with significant transcript levels in all stages of melanoma progression, including early and amelanotic melanoma lesions, and a significantly differential expression between melanoma cells and normal melanocytes in vivo. Owing to its higher sensitivity, phenotyping of individual tumor specimens by mRNA expression analysis seems to be more valuable than phenotyping by immunostaining.