We sequenced the prion protein gene and studied the biochemical characteristics and the intracerebral distribution of protease-resistant prion protein with Western blot and immunohistochemistry in 19 cases of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. We identified four groups of subjects defined by the genotype at codon 129 of the priori protein gene, the site of a common methionine/valine polymorphism, and two types of protease-resistant prion proteins that differed in size and glycosylation. The four Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease groups showed distinct clinicopathological features that corresponded to previously described variants. The typical Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease phenotype or myoclonic variant and the Heidenhain variant were linked to methionine homozygosity at codon 129 and to 'type 1' protease-resistant prion protein. The atypical and rarer variants such as that with dementia of long duration, the ataxic variant, and the variant with kuru plaques were linked to different genotypes at codon 129 and shared the 'type 2' protease- resistant prion protein. Our data indicate that the sporadic form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease comprises a limited number of variants. The methionine/valine polymorphism at codon 129 of the prion protein gene and two types of protease-resistant prion proteins are the major determinants of these variants. These findings suggest the existence of prion strains in humans and provide the molecular basis for a novel classification of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.