Mutations of the p53 gene appear to be one of the most common abnormalities in human cancer. Although many studies have been published about p53 alterations in breast cancer, data on molecular biological detection of p53 mutations in in situ lesions are still rare, and the implications for breast cancerogenesis are unclear. Tissue samples from 83 patients with different stages of breast cancer and from 13 patients with benign breast lesions were screened for p53 gene mutations by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) followed by temperature-gradient gel electrophoresis (TGGE). p53 protein accumulation was analysed by immunohistochemistry (IHC). Samples were gained from fresh-frozen tissue, scrapings, or paraffin embedded tissue. Additionally, 23 pairs of primary tumours and corresponding lymph nodes were examined. p53 gene aberrations were found in 55.7% of the infiltrating carcinomas, in 31.5% of the ductal carcinomas in situ (DCIS) and in one atypical ductal hyperplasia. A positive correlation was seen with high-grade tumours and with comedo. There was no statistically significant relationship with respect to age, menopausal status, tumour size, hormone receptor status or lymphatic invasion. Concordance between TGGE and IHC was seen in only 63% of the cases analysed. However, with regard to p53 mutation screening by TGGE, a high significance (P = 0.0008) was seen between standard tissue extraction and our scrape preparation technique. Among 8 pairs of primary tumours and their corresponding lymph node metastases, only 3 harbored identical p53 mutations in the same exon, while in 5 cases with mutant p53 in the primaries, no mutation was seen in the lymph node. Our data indicate that p53 mutations are frequent in breast tumours associated with unfavorable prognosis, including high-grade or the comedo histotype. There is evidence that p53 gene alterations occur early in breast cancerogenesis, as mutations were detected not only in in situ carcinomas but also in atypical ductal hyperplasia.