In order to define the diagnostic value of p53 tumor suppressor gene as a clonal marker in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), we investigated p53 mutations in primary tumors (PT) and matched lymph node metastases (LNM); the underlying question being whether differentiation between metastatic disease of a known PT or (a metastasis of) a synchronous or metachronous second tumor is possible by means of p53 sequencing-based mutation analysis. In 15 PT, the p53 status was analyzed, following RNA isolation, cDNA synthesis and polymerase chain reaction amplification, by direct sequencing full-length mRNA. Mutations thus found were confirmed by DNA sequencing analysis of the corresponding exon in the PT. When RNA isolation was defective, DNA sequencing analysis of exons 1 through 11 was performed. In the matched LNM, DNA analysis of the corresponding exon was performed to prove the presence of the same p53 mutation. In the event of small clones not detectable by direct sequencing, an oligo ligation assay was developed to detect a specific mutation. The presence of germline mutations was excluded by DNA sequencing analysis of the corresponding exon of peripheral blood leucocytes. In 14 PT (94%), a mutation was identified. In one PT, no p53 mutation could be identified either after full-length mRNA sequencing or after sequencing exons 1 through 11. In all cases of PT and matched LNM, the mutations proved to be identical. We conclude that p53 mutations develop in carcinogenesis before metastases occur and are maintained during metastasis. Consequently, p53 may serve as a clonal marker not susceptible to change during tumor metastasis. This merits further exploration of the application of p53 mutation analysis in differentiating between metastatic disease from a known PT versus a metastasis of another second PT.