Tonsillar squamous cell carcinomas (a total of 14) were examined both for the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA and for p53 alterations. General primer-mediated HPV polymerase chain reaction (GP-PCR) revealed the presence of HPV DNA in 12/14 cases. Subsequent typing by HPV type-specific PCR and sequence or hybridization analysis of GP-PCR products revealed DNA from HPV 16 in seven cases, from HPV 33 in two cases, and from HPV 7, HPV 16/33 and HPV 33/59 each in a single case. p53 immunohistochemistry performed on nine HPV containing tonsillar carcinomas using polyclonal serum CM-1 showed elevated p53 levels in four cases. These included 3/5 HPV 16 containing carcinomas and the HPV 33/59 containing carcinoma. Analysis of p53 mutations using denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) of GC-clamped PCR products of exons 5 to 8 showed p53 gene alterations in 3/13 cases, including 2/11 HPV positive cases and 1/2 HPV negative cases. The alterations included a silent point mutation within exon 8 of an HPV 16 containing carcinoma, a 1 bp deletion within exon 8 of an HPV 33 containing carcinoma, and a missense mutation within exon 7 of one of the HPV negative carcinomas. There was evident discrepancy between p53 immunohistochemistry and gene analysis. Four HPV containing cases showing elevated p53 levels did not reveal the presence of exon 5 to 8 alterations affecting the amino acid code, suggesting the presence of mutations occurring in other exons or non-mutational p53 stabilization. The data indicate that HPV and elevated p53 can coexist in tonsillar carcinomas and that despite the low frequency of p53 mutations the presence of HPV is not exclusively related to the absence of mutated p53.