The codon 31 polymorphism of the p53-inducible protein p21 was studied with respect to allele frequency variations between some major ethnic groups. The frequency of the Al (Arg) allele showed highly significant variations ranging from 4% in Caucasians (Swedes) to 50% in Chinese. Compared to Caucasians, a relatively high frequency was found in African Blacks (29%) and Indians (16%). Furthermore, Finns and Mordvinians also had higher frequencies (9-10%) than west Europeans (French and Swedes), consistent with an Asiatic Mongoloid influence known to exist in Finno-Ugrian tribes. The geographic allele frequency patterns of p53 and its effector protein p21 were quite different. The p21 A1 mutations in African, Asiatic and European populations were identical at the DNA level. The geographical distribution of the A1 allele suggests an independent origin in Africa and Asia. The very pronounced ethnic differentiation of tumour suppressor genes and the fact that tumour suppressor genes may be teratogenes suggest that these polymorphisms are maintained by natural selection, probably operating in the intrauterine period.