Immunohistochemical analysis of the expression of the cyclin kinase inhibitor p21WAF1/CIP1 in a panel of primary and metastatic human melanocytic tumors was performed. It was found that, independent of the p53 status, approximately 30% of the primary melanomas and 40% of the metastases completely lacked expression of this cell cycle inhibitor. Some tumors were also analyzed by Northern blotting, and in most of the cases a consistant correlation between mRNA and protein expression was observed. In four benign nevi studied, WAF1/CIP1 mRNA was expressed whereas the protein was not detected, suggesting a post-transcriptional regulation of the inhibitor in these cases. In superficial spreading melanomas, a significant correlation between protein expression and tumor thickness was found, with thin lesions showing low protein levels. Interestingly, by comparing primary and metastatic specimens obtained from the same patient, a reduction in p21WAF1/CIP1 antibody staining was observed in the latter, probably reflecting a more aggressive phenotype of the metastases. In conclusion, our results demonstrate the complexity in the relationship between p21WAF1/CIP1 expression and tumor phenotype and furthermore suggest that aberrant expression of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor may be of importance in the development and progression of sporadic malignant melanoma.