Sjögren's syndrome (SS) is a chronic autoimmune disorder characterized by lymphocytic infiltration of the salivary and lacrimal glands. These patients have a markedly increased frequency of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in their salivary glands and cervical lymph nodes. Translocations of proto-oncogene bcl-2 t(14;18) were observed in five of seven SS-associated lymphomas by Southern blot analysis. Using primers specific for chromosomes 14 and 18, translocation of the proto-oncogene bcl-2 was detected by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in all five lymphomas positive by Southern blot analysis. Among SS patients lacking clinical evidence of coexistent lymphoma, no bcl-2 translocations were detected in 50 consecutive salivary gland biopsies. Of particular interest, pre-lymphoma biopsies were available from the seven SS patients who subsequently developed lymphoma and these DNA samples lacked detectable t(14;18) translocations even though they exhibited oligoclonal rearrangements of their immunoglobulin genes. We conclude that the great sensitivity of PCR can help us in detecting early onset of lymphoma in SS patients and aid in understanding the transition from autoimmunity to lymphoma.