Based on the high incidence of loss of heterozygosity for loci on chromosome 17p in the vicinity of the p53 locus in human breast tumors, we investigated the frequency and effects of mutations in the p53 tumor suppressor gene in mammary neoplasia. We examined the p53 gene in 20 breast cancer cell lines and 59 primary breast tumors. Northern blot analysis, immunoprecipitation, and nucleotide sequencing analysis revealed aberrant mRNA expression, over-expression of protein, and point mutations in the p53 gene in 50% of the cell lines tested. A multiplex PCR assay was developed to search for deletions in the p53 genomic locus. Multiplex PCR of genomic DNA showed that up to 36% of primary tumors contained aberrations in the p53 locus. Mutations in exons 5-9 of the p53 gene were found in 10 out of 59 (17%) of the primary tumors studies by single-stranded conformation polymorphism analysis. We conclude that, compared to amplification of HER2/NEU, MYC, or INT2 oncogene loci, p53 gene mutations and deletions are the most frequently observed genetic change in breast cancer related to a single gene. Correlated to disease status, p53 gene mutations could prove to be a valuable marker for diagnosis and/or prognosis of breast neoplasia.