We investigated the possibility that a proportion of children with sporadic rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) carry constitutional mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene. 33 patients with sporadic RMS at two large outpatient pediatric oncology clinics submitted blood samples. Genomic DNA was extracted from peripheral blood leukocytes and PCR was used to amplify exons 2-11 of the p53 gene. Amplified genomic DNA was screened for the presence of germline p53 mutations using single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis. The DNA sequence of those samples that showed aberrant migration of bands on SSCP analysis was determined to identify the precise nature of the gene mutations. Patient records were reviewed to assess clinical correlates of the mutant p53 carrier state. Heterozygous constitutional mutations were detected in 3/33 patient samples screened. Two of these missense mutations are located in exon 7 and one in exon 8 of the p53 gene. The presence of mutations was not correlated with tumor histology, stage, or site. However, an association between young age at diagnosis and presence of a constitutional p53 mutation was noted: 3/13 children under the age of 3 yr at diagnosis carried mutations, whereas none of 20 children over 3 yr of age at diagnosis harbored a detectable constitutional mutation. These results in children with RMS corroborates previous findings in other clinical settings suggesting that the mutant p53 carrier state may predispose individuals to malignancy at an early age. Although this study did not assess whether the mutations were preexisting or new germline alterations, assessment of close relatives of RMS patients for cancer risk and predictive genetic testing may be indicated.