Recent studies have suggested that the p53 oncoprotein might function normally as a tumor suppressor. Mutations in highly conserved regions of the p53 gene have been observed in numerous types of tumors and tumor cell lines. To detect in a more sensitive manner p53 gene mutations in small cell lung cancer (SCLC) we utilized the single strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) technique of Orita et al., (1989). Using PCR primers for the most highly conserved regions of the p53 gene, including exons 4-9, we have identified p53 mutations in 5 of 9 small cell lung cancer (SCLC) tumor DNA samples and in 1 SCLC cell line. None of the mutations seen in tumor DNA samples were present in normal DNA from the same patients, indicating that mutation of the p53 gene in these tumors was a somatic event. Of the six mutations observed, two were found in exon 7, three were found in the region encompassing exons 8 and 9, and one was found in the region encompassing exons 5 and 6. Nucleotide sequencing of one of the exon 7 mutations and one of the exon 8-9 mutations indicated that each was a C to T transition. In SCLC-6 the mutation resulted in substitution of serine for proline at amino acid 278 and in SCLC-4 substitution of tryptophan for arginine at amino acid 248, both nonconservative amino acid substitutions. Both of these changes are in regions of the p53 gene where mutations have been observed in other tumors. Two additional mutations were observed in SCLC cell lines using conventional PCR techniques. One of these is a mutation which results in altered splicing of the p53 pre-mRNA.