We screened for p53 alterations in 71 early gastric cancers of differing histological types and growth patterns, 18 advanced cancers of diffuse type, 19 dysplastic lesions, and 12 extensive intestinal metaplasia cases. Tumors were investigated for gene mutations (exons 5-8) with PCR-based denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis and sequencing techniques, and for protein accumulation with immunohistochemical methods. Nontumor samples were studied with immunohistochemistry alone. Of the early cancers, intestinal tumors showed a much higher p53 mutation frequency (41%) than did diffuse cancers (4%). When comparing early and advanced tumors of the same type, we observed a similarity in mutation frequency (41 versus about 50%) for intestinal tumors, and a significant increase for diffuse tumors (from 4 to 33%). Immunopositive case distribution between tumor types and stages paralleled that of mutated cases. Immunohistochemical and genetic analysis gave concordant results for all samples with gene mutations. Eighteen of the 65 (28%) nonmutated tumors displayed significant immunoreactivity. Early tumors that massively penetrated the submucosa, i.e., the early tumors for which prognosis is worst, showed the highest frequency both of p53 gene mutation and of nonmutated protein accumulation. Twelve of 19 dysplastic lesions showed significant immunoreactivity, whereas intestinal metaplasias proved unreactive in all but a few cells. Our results yield two implications: that p53 alterations have a crucial and early role in gastric carcinogenesis of intestinal type, likely acting at the transition step between metaplasia and dysplasia; and that the alterations are mainly associated with tumor progression in cancer of diffuse type.