The WAF1 gene, located on chromosome 6p, encodes a M(r) 21,000 protein (p21) that can arrest cell growth by associating with and inhibiting cyclin-dependent kinase complexes that are necessary for cells to exit Gr. Transcriptional activation of WAF1 can be accomplished by increasing levels of p53 protein induced by various cellular stresses, including DNA damage. Metastatic melanomas are paradoxical in that most overexpress wild-type p53 protein, yet cell growth is not inhibited. Thus, it is possible that lack of growth suppression in melanomas is due, in part, to mutations in the WAF1 gene. Therefore, we examined the entire coding region of the WAF1 gene in 24 metastatic melanoma cell lines and three normal melanocyte lines by single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis and direct DNA sequencing. We similarly examined the DNA from lymphoblastoid cell lines, derived from nine individuals belonging to seven melanoma-prone families, in which haplotypes of markers on 6p cosegregate with melanoma for germline mutations in the WAF1 gene. Results indicate that (i) mutation of the WAF1 gene is an infrequent event in individuals with sporadic melanoma or predisposed to familial melanoma and (ii) the uncontrolled growth of melanoma cells is not due to mutation of the WAF1 gene. However, expression studies found a wide variation in the level of p21 protein in melanoma cells, suggesting that aberrant regulation of p21 may play a role in melanoma development. Moreover, there was no predictable relationship between p21 expression and p53 expression, indicating that other, p53-independent, pathways may be important for the regulation of p21 in melanoma cells.