The tumor suppressor gene p16 (CDKN2/MTS-1/INK4A) is an important component of the cell cycle and inactivation of the gene has been found in a variety of human cancers. In order to investigate the role of p16 gene in the tumorigenesis of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), 48 cases of HCC were analysed for p16 alterations by: methylation-specific PCR (MSP) to determine the methylation status of the p16 promoter region; comparative multiplex PCR to detect homozygous deletion; PCR-SSCP and DNA sequencing analysis to identify mutation of the p16 gene. We found high frequency of hypermethylation of the 5' CpG island of the p16 gene in 30 of 48 cases (62.5%) of HCC tumors. Moreover, homozygous deletion at p16 region were present in five of 48 cases (10.4%); and missense mutation were detected in three of 48 cases (6.3%). The overall frequency of p16 alterations, including homozygous deletion, mutation and hypermethylation, in HCC tumors was 70.8% (34 of 48 cases). These findings suggest that: (a) the inactivation of the p16 is a frequent event in HCC; (b) the p16 gene is inactivated by multiple mechanisms including homozygous deletion, promoter hypermethylation and point mutation; (c) the most common somatic alteration of the p16 gene in HCC is de novo hypermethylation of the 5' CpG island; and (d) in contrast to other studies, high frequency of genomic alterations are not uncommon in the 9p21 of the p16 gene. Our results strongly suggest that the p16 gene plays an important role in the pathogenesis of HCC.