Mutations of the p53 gene were investigated in 80 surgical specimens of primary gastric cancer by polymerase chain reaction single-strand conformation polymorphism (PCR-SSCP) analysis. Mutations were detected in 18 tumors (22.5%) and localized to exons 5, 7 and 8. Mutations did not follow a random distribution among different subtypes, but instead clustered in the group of papillary adenocarcinomas, in which 7/12 (58.3%) cases were mutated. Positivity for p53 mutation was significantly higher in intestinal-type (37.5%) than in diffuse-type carcinomas (12.5%). These results suggest that gene alterations of p53 are not rare and may participate in the carcinogenesis of intestinal-type carcinomas of the stomach. Twenty of 21 p53 mutations were represented by single nucleotide changes, mostly missense mutations (19 events) and one nonsense mutation. Transversional mutations constitute the majority of p53 mutations (65%) and only 20% of mutations show G:C to A:T transitions. It is possible that the etiologies of gastric cancer in different geographical areas are different.