Single-stranded conformational polymorphism (SSCP) and direct sequencing were performed on uninvolved mucosa, severe dysplasia and invasive carcinoma samples from 20 patients with head and neck squamous carcinoma. Seven (35%) of the non-invasive lesions and 15 (75%) of the invasive carcinomas manifested p53 mutations. Although the majority of mutations were mis-sense, resulting in single amino acid substitution, a silent mutation encoding for the same amino acid and 2 non-sense mutations encoding a stop codon were also observed. Mutations in invasive carcinoma were mostly in exon 8 and involved codons 296, 288 and 298; non-invasive lesions showed more mutations at exons 5 to 7. Five lesions showed simultaneous mutations in 2 different exons; in 3 both non-invasive and invasive carcinomas showed primary mutation at exons 5 to 7, and invasive carcinoma showed a secondary mutation at exon 8. Different codon mutations in the same exon between dysplastic and the corresponding carcinoma samples were found in 2 cases. p53 alterations were not observed in any of the normal mucosa samples. No apparent association between p53 mutations and conventional clinicopathologic parameters, including DNA content, was found in this cohort. Our study indicates that (i) p53 alteration is an early event in the genesis of a subset of head and neck squamous carcinomas, (ii) normal mucosa within the resected specimens lacked p53 mutation, (iii) sequential mutations of different exons of the p53 gene suggests accumulation of genetic alterations during the neoplastic transformation of these lesions and (iv) the difference in codon mutation of the same exon between dysplastic and corresponding carcinoma suggests an independent clonal development.