The mechanisms of tumorigenesis of adrenocortical neoplasms have not been elucidated as yet. However, loss of heterozygosity at chromosomal locus 17p has been consistently observed in adrenocortical cancer. p53 is a recessive tumor suppressor gene located on chromosome 17p. Mutations in the p53 gene play an important role in the tumorigenesis of diverse types of human neoplasms including breast and colon cancers. More than 90% of all mutations discovered in such tumors have been detected in 4 hot spot areas that lie between exons 5 and 8. In contrast to wild-type p53, mutant p53 accumulates intracellularly and can be easily detected by immunohistochemistry. We therefore investigated the frequency of p53 mutations in human adrenocortical neoplasms using molecular biology and immunohistochemistry techniques. Five patients with adrenocortical adenomas (5 female; ages 39-72 yr), 11 patients with adrenocortical carcinomas (8 female, 3 male; ages 15-50 yr), and two adrenocortical tumor cell lines were studied. After DNA extraction from frozen tumor tissue or paraffin-embedded material, exons 5 through 8 were amplified using the polymerase chain reaction and directly sequenced by the dideoxy termination method. Immunohistochemistry was performed on paraffin-embedded tumor specimens obtained during adrenalectomy using a monoclonal antibody reacting with both wild-type and mutant p53. Prevalence of mutations was adenomas, 0/5, carcinomas, 3/11, and adrenocortical cell lines, 2/2. Single point mutations were detected in 3 cases (exons 5, 6, and 7, respectively), and rearrangements of exon 7/8 and 8 were found in 2 cases. Immunohistochemistry detected strong nuclear and/or cytoplasmic p53 immunoreactivity in all adrenocortical carcinomas with point mutations of the p53 gene but not in adenomas and carcinomas with the wild-type sequence or with deletion/rearrangement of the p53 gene. We conclude that p53 plays a role in the tumorigenesis of adrenocortical carcinomas but is of less importance to benign adenomas.