A new technique for characterizing somatic mutations in very small samples of cellularly heterogeneous human cancer tissue was developed and tested using mutations in the p53 gene in breast carcinomas as a model system. The technique combines touch preparation of specimens to obtain homogeneous clusters of carcinoma cells free of normal cells with a nested pair of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplifications of DNA to increase the amount of target gene sequence sufficiently to permit direct sequencing of the p53 gene. Touch preparations of fresh or previously frozen tissue from human adenocarcinomas derived from several organs were stained, and clusters of 10-50 malignant cells were transferred by pipette into microfuge tubes for PCR amplification. Exons 5-9 of the p53 gene, which contain the major mutational hot spots associated with most human cancers, were sequenced by the following steps: 1) two rounds of PCR amplification using DNA Taq polymerase and two sets of oligonucleotide primers, the second set being nested within the segment amplified by the first set and having attached T7 and SP6 phage promoter sequences, 2) transcription of the amplified DNA sequences with T7 and SP6 RNA polymerases, and 3) dideoxy sequencing of single-stranded RNA transcripts with reverse transcriptase and with additional oligonucleotide primers to achieve specificity for this unique region of the genome. The utility of this approach is illustrated by our success in detecting and analyzing point mutations in cell clusters from four of 11 primary adenocarcinomas of the human breast.