The inactivation of p53 tumour suppressor gene vis-á-vis point mutation, overexpression and degradation due to Human Papilloma virus (HPV) 16/18 infection, was examined in chewing tobacco-associated oral cancers and oral leukoplakias from India. The analysis of mutations was assessed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with single strand conformation polymorphism (PCR-SSCP) of exons 5-9 on DNA from 83 oral cancer cases, and the mutations confirmed by direct nucleotide sequencing of the PCR products. p53 protein expression was evaluated by immunohistochemical analysis on paraffin-embedded sections of 62 representative oral cancer biopsies and 22 leukoplakias, using p53-specific monoclonal antibody DO-7. The presence of HPV16/18 was detected in the 83 oral cancer cases by PCR analysis using HPV L1 consensus sequences, followed by Southern hybridization with type-specific oligonucleotide probes. Forty-six per cent (38/83) of oral cancer tumours showed p53 alterations, with 17% (14/83) showing point mutations, 37% (23/62) with overexpression and 25% (21/83) with presence of HPV16 wherein the E6 HPV16 protein degrades p53. HPV18 was not detected in any of the samples. Ninety-two per cent concordance was observed between missense point mutations and overexpression of p53 protein. A significant correlation was not observed between p53 alterations in oral cancer and clinico-pathological profile of the patients. Twenty-seven per cent (6/22) of oral leukoplakias showed p53 overexpression. The overall p53 alterations in oral cancer tissues and oral lesions are comparable to data from the oral cancers reported in the Western countries with smoking and alcohol-associated oral cancers, and suggest a critical role for p53 gene in a significant proportion of oral cancers from India. The overexpression of p53 protein in leukoplakias may serve as a valuable biomarker for identifying individuals at high risk of transformation to malignant phenotype.