Oral squamous-cell carcinoma is thought to be preceded by a number of precursor stages which induce morphological changes in cells of the oral mucosa resulting in clinically detectable pre-malignant lesions such as erythroplakia or leukoplakia. To better understand the etiology of oral erythroplakia, we have examined the p53 tumor-suppressor gene (exons 5-9) for mutations in 24 oral erythroplakia lesions of varying dysplastic phenotypes by PCR/single-strand conformational polymorphism and direct DNA-sequencing analyses. A total of 12 p53 mutations were detected in 11 of 24 (46%) erythroplakia specimens (one specimen contained two different p53 mutations); 25% were single-base-pair deletions and 33% were either G:C-->T:A transversions or G:C-->A:T transitions. A high prevalence of p53 mutation was observed in all categories of erythroplakia lesions: 33% for mildly dysplastic lesions, 50% for lesions exhibiting moderate to severe dysplasia and 50% for lesions that were carcinoma in situ. Although the combined prevalence of p53 mutations observed in erythroplakia was significantly higher (p = 0.02) than that observed earlier for leukoplakia, the prevalence of p53 mutations was similar in erythroplakia and leukoplakia specimens from smokers. The prevalence and spectrum of p53 mutations observed in this series of erythroplakia lesions are similar to those observed for oral squamous-cell carcinoma. These results indicate that mutations of the p53 gene may be linked to the high malignant potential of erythroplakia and provide further evidence that p53 mutation may be an early event in the genesis of oral squamous-cell carcinoma.