The relationship between human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16 infection and p53 gene mutations was investigated in squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck (SCCHN). HPV was detected by general primer-mediated and type-specific PCR. Alterations in the p53 gene were investigated using single-strand conformation polymorphism and sequence analysis in 27 SCCHN, of which 12 were HPV 16-positive and 15 were HPV-negative. Mutations were detected in 2/12 (16.7%) HPV 16-positive and 7/15 (46.7%) HPV-negative tumours; this difference was not statistically significant. The predominant mutations were deletions and C --> T transitions; G --> T transversions were found in only 2 tumours. Our results indicate that the presence of HPV 16 and p53 mutations is not mutually exclusive and detection of a p53 mutation does not exclude a potential role for HPV 16 in the pathogenesis of a subset of SCCHN.