Mutations in the evolutionarily conserved codons of the p53 tumor suppressor gene are common in diverse types of human cancer. The p53 mutational spectrum differs among cancers of the colon, lung, esophagus, breast, liver, brain, reticuloendothelial tissues, and hemopoietic tissues. Analysis of these mutations can provide clues to the etiology of these diverse tumors and to the function of specific regions of p53. Transitions predominate in colon, brain, and lymphoid malignancies, whereas G:C to T:A transversions are the most frequent substitutions observed in cancers of the lung and liver. Mutations at A:T base pairs are seen more frequently in esophageal carcinomas than in other solid tumors. Most transitions in colorectal carcinomas, brain tumors, leukemias, and lymphomas are at CpG dinucleotide mutational hot spots. G to T transversions in lung, breast, and esophageal carcinomas are dispersed among numerous codons. In liver tumors in persons from geographic areas in which both aflatoxin B_1 and hepatitis B virus are cancer risk factors, most mutations are at one nucleotide pair of codon 249. These differences may reflect the etiological contributions of both exogenous and endogenous factors to human carcinogenesis.