Paired samples of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL) and the subsequent diffuse large cell lymphoma (DLL) of six cases of Richterxybs syndrome were investigated to establish the clonal relationship between the CLL/SLL and the DLL components and to define the oncogene and/or tumor-suppressor gene alterations involved in the morphologic transformation of CLL/SLL. Southern blot hybridization analysis showed identical clonal immunoglobulin (Ig) gene-rearrangement patterns in the CLL/SLL and DLL components in four cases and different Ig gene-rearrangement patterns in two cases. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification, cloning, and DNA sequencing of complementary determinant region 3 (CDR3) of the Ig-heavy chain gene of one of the two cases in which the Ig gene- rearrangement patterns were different showed nonidentical sequences in the CLL/SLL and DLL components. In the other case, monomorphic Epstein- Barr virus (EBV) genome integration was detected in the DLL but not in the CLL, suggesting that the CLL and DLL components in this case of Richter's syndrome also represent unrelated clones. Single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis and sequencing of exons 5 through 9 of the p53 tumor-suppressor gene showed a mutation in codon 176 of the DLL but not in the CLL/SLL component in one case where the CLL/SLL and DLL represented different clones. The p53 mutation probably played a role in the development of the lymphoma rather than morphologic transformation of the CLL/SLL in this case. SSCP analysis and sequencing also showed identical mutations in codon 282 in both the CLL/SLL and DLL components in a case where the CLL and DLL represented identical clones. Thus, this p53 gene mutation was present both before and after morphologic transformation, and therefore, probably did not play a primary role in this process. Southern blot hybridization analysis failed to show evidence of bcl-1, bcl-2, c-myc proto-oncogene or retinoblastoma (Rb) tumor-suppressor gene rearrangements in these six cases of Richter's syndrome. In conclusion, the original CLL/SLL and the subsequent DLL in Richter's syndrome may or may not be derived from identical clones, and the well-known proto-oncogenes and tumor- suppressor genes do not appear to play an obvious and consistent role in the morphologic transformation of CLL/SLL to DLL.