We characterized the breakpoints, gains, and losses of chromosome material in squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck region from 29 patients. Cell lines were karyotyped in 1/3 of cases, direct preparations or early in vitro harvests in 1/3, and both in 1/3 of cases. GTG-banding was employed in all cases, as were C-banding and RBG- and AgNOR-staining in most. Some tumors were near-diploid and others near-tetraploid, but many had mixed populations, with diploid, tetraploid, and octoploid subclones representing essentially the same karyotypic pattern. The most frequent changes were deletions. Losses affecting 3p13-p24, 5q12-q23, 8p22-p23, 9p21-p24, and 18q22-q23 ranged in frequency from 40% to 60% of tumors. Loss of the short arm of the inactive X occurred in 70% of tumors from female patients, and loss or rearrangement of the Y occurred in 74% of tumors from male patients. Loss of 18q appeared to be associated with short survival, as did the presence of multiple deletions. There was gain (2-5 extra copies) of 3q21-qter, 5p, 7p, 8q, and 11q13-q23 in 28-38% of tumors. Three tumors had an hsr involving 11q13-q21. Gain of material at 11q13 is postulated to be associated with amplification of the PRADI/CCND gene at that locus. A translocation between proximal 1p and either an acrocentric short arm or proximal 8p or 9p was observed in squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck region but not in female genital tract tumors. No other abnormalities appeared to be site specific, suggesting a pattern of genetic evolution in squamous cell carcinoma that is independent of anatomic site.