For the rapid and sensitive detection of p53 gene mutations in esophageal endoscopic biopsy specimens, we combined cell sorting with the polymerase chain reaction and single-strand conformation polymorphism (PCR-SSCP) analysis. Mutations in exons 5-8 of the p53 gene were investigated by PCR-SSCP analysis using 10(3) sorted nuclei obtained from each endoscopic biopsy specimen of 16 patients with esophageal cancer. DNAs extracted from their respective surgical specimens were investigated by a conventional method of PCR-SSCP analysis. Mutations in the biopsy specimens were detected in 6 of the 12 aneuploid tumors but in none of the 4 diploid tumors. After tumor cell enrichment by cell sorting, one mutation in exon 8 became apparent, which could not be detected from the surgical specimen by a conventional method of PCR-SSCP analysis. This method should improve the sensitivity of detecting p53 gene mutations, and provides additional information concerning the DNA ploidy pattern in the tumors.