The p53 gene was analyzed in tumor specimens obtained from 52 patients with various types of carcinoma of the thyroid gland by a combined molecular and immunocytochemical approach. The histologic types included 37 well-differentiated papillary and follicular carcinomas, 8 poorly differentiated, and 7 undifferentiated carcinomas. The p53 gene was shown to be unaffected in all differentiated tumors by single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis. However, in two out of eight (25%) of poorly differentiated carcinomas and five out of seven (71%) undifferentiated carcinomas, p53 mutations were identified and subsequently characterized by DNA sequencing. One undifferentiated carcinoma displayed two areas with varying degrees of differentiation. The comparative analysis of the p53 gene, in both the more and the less differentiated area of this tumor, clearly showed that the p53 mutation was confined to the latter component of the tumor specimen. These results indicate that mutations of the p53 gene are associated with the most aggressive histologic types of thyroid tumors, such as the undifferentiated carcinoma and, to a certain extent, the poorly differentiated carcinoma, and that the alterations of this gene represent a late genetic event in human thyroid carcinogenesis.