Familial porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT) is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait caused by decreased activity of uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase (URO-D). In most families with PCT, URO-D mRNA levels are normal but both catalytic activity and immunologic reactivity of URO-D are half normal. We have cloned and sequenced 8 URO-D cDNA transcripts derived from a pedigree member with familial PCT. Three of the cDNAs had sequences encoding normal URO-D but five cDNA's contained a point mutation resulting in a gly----val substitution at amino acid position 281. An oligonucleotide probe complementary to the mutant sequence hybridized to DNA from affected individuals within the pedigree, but not to DNA from normal individuals. Measurements of pulse labeled URO-D in Epstein-Barr virus transformed lymphocytes indicated that the mutant protein has a half-life in vivo of less than four hours. In vitro measurements utilizing labeled URO-Ds generated in a reticulocyte lysate system revealed a 12-hour half-life for the mutant protein compared with a 102-hour half-life for normal URO-D. This is the first URO-D mutation to be characterized in a pedigree with familial PCT. This mutation was not detected in affected individuals from seven other PCT pedigrees, suggesting that PCT can result from different mutations.