We investigated the immunocytochemical staining and immunoblotting characteristics of 33 different p53 mutant proteins identified in lung cancer cell lines (18 small-cell lung cancer and 15 non-small-cell lung cancer) using monoclonal antibodies pAbs 240, 421 and 1801. The p53 mutants studied were representative of those found in lung cancer and included three deletions, four nonsense, seven splicing and 19 missense lesions. Control cell lines included six B-lymphoblastoid cell lines and two lung cancer cell lines without p53 mutations. Immunocytochemistry demonstrated 16 cell lines (48%) with definite overexpression of p53 protein (the high-expresser group of mutants), while in the remainder of cases either no p53 expression or low levels of p53 protein expression were found (the low-expresser group of mutants). The type of p53 mutation correlated with the expresser group. High expressers all had p53 missense mutations in exons 5-8, and immunocytochemistry identified 16/17 (94%) of these mutants. Several classes of p53 mutations occur in the low-expresser groups: deletions, splicing mutants, nonsense mutants and missense mutations outside of exons 5-8 all resulted in very low or undetectable levels of p53 protein. We conclude that there are low- and high-expression groups of p53 mutants in lung cancer and that the detection of protein expression in tumor cells by immunocytochemistry and immunoblotting is dependent upon the type of mutation of the p53 tumor-suppressor gene.