Mutations in the p53 tumor suppressor gene are frequently observed in primary lung adenocarcinomas, suggesting that these mutations are critical events in the malignant transformation of airway cells. These mutations are often associated with stabilization of the p53 gene product, resulting in the accumulation of p53 protein. In this study, 70 formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded primary lung adenocarcinomas resected for potential cure were examined for p53 overexpression. These 70 lung adenocarcinomas were obtained from a series of patients with well-documented clinical histories, and all 70 carcinomas had been previously evaluated for point mutations in codon 12 of the K-ras oncogene. Overexpression of the p53 protein was detected using an antigen retrieval system (Target Unmasking Fluid) and the anti-p53 antibody CM-1. CM-1 is a polyclonal antibody directed against the wild-type p53 protein. Overexpression of the p53 protein was found in 23 (33%) of the 70 lung adenocarcinomas. In all 23 cases, overexpression was confined to neoplastic cells. Overexpression of the p53 protein correlated with cigarette smoking: 10 (56%) of the 18 adenocarcinomas from patients who were current smokers overexpressed p53 compared with 13 (33%) of the 40 adenocarcinomas from patients who had quit smoking and 0 (0%) of the 12 adenocarcinomas from patients who had never smoked (p = 0.002, trend test). Overexpression of the p53 protein was also related to the degree of histologic differentiation: 48% of the p53 negative carcinomas were well differentiated, whereas only 13% (p = 0.003) of the carcinomas in which p53 was overexpressed were well differentiated. Overexpression of the p53 protein did not correlate with point mutations in codon 12 of the K-ras oncogene, nor did it correlate with tumor stage or patient survival. These findings indicate that p53 protein is frequently overexpressed in primary lung adenocarcinomas. Furthermore, the association of tobacco smoking with this overexpression suggests that the p53 gene is a target of specific mutagens in tobacco smoke.