Barrett's esophagus is a metaplastic condition with an unpredictable potential for neoplasia. Mutations of the tumor-suppressor gene p53 have been implicated in the evolution of some carcinomas. These mutations frequently result in intranuclear protein accumulation, which can be detected immunohistochemically. This study was undertaken to determine whether p53 immunoreactivity in Barrett's esophagus is a marker of neoplasia and, if so, when it occurs in the metaplasia-dysplasia-carcinoma sequence. Twenty-eight esophageal resection specimens were studied. Barrett's mucosa was present in each specimen, low-grade dysplasia in 27, high-grade dysplasia in 26, intramucosal cancer in 18, and submucosal cancer in 5. Immunohistochemical staining with the monoclonal antibody Pab1801 was used to detect the intranuclear protein product of mutated p53. No p53 immunoreactivity was seen in specimens of Barrett's mucosa or low-grade dysplasia. p53 immunoreactivity was found only in specimens of high-grade dysplasia, intramucosal cancer, and submucosal cancer. Sixty-nine percent (18/26) of these specimens exhibited mutated p53; 18 of 26 specimens of high-grade dysplasia (69%), 12 of 18 intramucosal cancer specimens (67%), and two of five submucosal cancer specimens (40%) expressed mutated p53. When p53 staining was observed, the spectrum of neoplastic changes (high-grade dysplasia, intramucosal cancer, submucosal cancer) within the specimen was positive. We conclude that (1) p53 immunoreactivity in Barrett's esophagus is a frequent, but not inclusive, marker for high-grade dysplasia, intramucosal cancer, and submucosal cancer and (2) immunoreactivity occurs late in the metaplasia-dysplasia-carcinoma sequence, during the transition to high-grade dysplasia.