The development and progression of thyroid tumors is signaled by phenotype-specific mutations of genes involved in growth control. Molecular events associated with undifferentiated thyroid cancer are not known. We examined normal, benign, and malignant thyroid tissue for structural abnormalities of the p53 tumor suppressor gene. Mutations were detected by single-strand conformation polymorphisms of PCR-amplified DNA, using primers bracketing the known hot spots on either exons 5, 6, 7, or 8. The prevalence of mutations was as follows: normal thyroid 0/6; follicular adenomas 0/31; papillary carcinomas 0/37; medullary carcinomas 0/2; follicular carcinomas 1/11; anaplastic carcinomas 5/6; thyroid carcinoma cell lines 3/4. Positive cases were confirmed by direct sequencing of the PCR products. All five anaplastic carcinoma tissues and the anaplastic carcinoma cell line ARO had G:C to A:T transitions leading to an Arg to His substitution at codon 273. In both tumors and cell lines, examples of heterozygous and homozygous p53 mutations were identified. The only thyroid carcinoma cell line in which p53 mutations were not detected in exons 5-8 had markedly decreased p53 mRNA levels, suggesting the presence of a structural abnormality of either p53 itself or of some factor controlling its expression. The presence of p53 mutations almost exclusively in poorly differentiated thyroid tumors and thyroid cancer cell lines suggests that inactivation of p53 may confer these neoplasms with aggressive properties, and further loss of differentiated function.