Using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based single strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis, we have examined the highly conserved regions of the p53 gene in 58 biopsy samples of head and neck tumors. Mutations were found in 13/58 (23%) tumor specimens, but not in 6 normal tissues. Ten of 13 mutations were due to single base changes and the remaining 3 were 1- or 8-base deletion mutants. These mutations were clustered in exons 5 and 7 and resulted in amino acid changes. Our results seem to indicate that mutations in the p53 gene contribute to a significant number of cases of the head and neck tumors including 20% of nasopharyngeal carcinoma biopsies. The relationship of Epstein-Barr virus or human papillomavirus and p53 gene mutations in this group of cancers was also analyzed and discussed.