Alterations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene are the most frequent genetic abnormalities in human malignancies, but the role of p53 in the etiology of malignant melanomas is unclear. Fifty unselected malignant melanomas were analyzed for p53 overexpression by immunohistochemistry using 3 monoclonal antibodies (MAbs). Fifteen tumors (29.4%) showed positive staining with at least 2 different antibodies. In the first 20 consecutive tumors exons 5-9 and adjacent splice sites of the p53 gene were analyzed by genomic sequencing. There were 4 mutations in 20 metastatic melanomas. Three of 4 mutations were C:G-->T:A transitions. A search of our database of p53 mutations revealed that out of 8 p53 mutations reported by others, 4 are C:G-->T:A transitions at dipyrimidine sites, and one is a tandem CC-->TT mutation. This mutational pattern is comparable with the pattern of p53 mutations in squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas of the skin and is related to exposure to ultraviolet B (UV-B) wavelength radiation. Taken together with a predominance of UV-induced mutations in the CDKN2/ p16 gene demonstrated in melanoma cell lines, our data support a role of sunlight exposure in the etiology of malignant melanoma. The low frequency of p53 mutants in melanomas compared with other types of skin cancers suggests that although mutations in this gene are likely to be involved in the development of some malignant melanomas, they do not play as large a role as in squamous and basal cell carcinomas of the skin.