In order to clarify the significance of mutation of the p53 tumor suppressor gene in the genesis and development of human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in an aflatoxin B1 low-exposure area, the spectrum, i.e., incidence, type, and site, of p53 gene mutations was examined in 169 tissue samples resected mainly from Japanese patients using single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis and direct sequencing. Forty-nine tumors (29%) showed a p53 mutation (39 point mutations and 10 frameshifts). The point mutations comprised 18 transitions, only 4 of which occurred at CpG sites, and 21 transversions. Two evolutionarily conserved domains, IV and V, contained 65% of all mutations and codon 249 was the most frequent mutation site (7/49). The spectrum of p53 mutation did not differ among HCCs in relation to the type of hepatitis virus infection, sex, age, and background liver disease of patients, tumor size, or presence of metastasis, but incidence and site were significantly associated with the degree of differentiation of cancer cells. In poorly differentiated HCC, p53 mutation was frequent (54%) and clustered on domains IV and V, whereas in well or moderately differentiated HCC, the mutation was less frequent (21%) and equally distributed on domains II to V. Restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis revealed loss of heterozygosity on chromosome 17p in 55 (69%) of 80 informative cases and in 34 (95%) of 36 cases with p53 mutation. Therefore, p53 gene mutation is suggested to occur independently of the type of viral infection or status of preexisting liver disease and to occur preferentially in moderately and poorly differentiated HCCs in association with or after loss of another p53 allele as a late event of HCC progression.