A phenotypic and molecular evaluation was made of 15 patients with mature B-cell leukemia/lymphoma showing exclusive spleen and bone marrow involvement. According to French-American-British criteria, these cases could not be classified as classical B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia, hairy cell leukemia and its variant forms, splenic lymphoma with villous lymphocytes, or leukemic phase non- Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL; follicular or intermediate type). The immunophenotype pattern (high surface Ig and CD25 expression, and little or no reactivity with CD5, CD23, and CD11c) and cytomorphologic features of these neoplasms suggested an origin in the marginal zone of the spleen. Molecular analysis did not show any involvement of the dominantly acting oncogenes generally associated with lymphoid malignancies (c-myc, bcl-2, bcl-1, Ras), but mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene involving exons 5, 6, and 8 were found in 6 cases (6 of 15, 40%). In 4 cases, the p53 alterations consisted of a point mutation leading to amino acid substitution. In the remaining 2 cases, an insertion or deletion resulting in a frame-shift of the protein was observed. In all but 1 of the cases, the wild-type sequence at the mutation site was barely visible, implying the loss of the normal p53 allele in leukemic cells. All of the cases showed a clinical course compatible with that of low-grade NHL, regardless of the p53 loss/mutation. Overall, our data suggest the existence of a form of splenic B-cell leukemia/lymphoma of possible marginal zone origin in which p53 inactivation may play an important pathogenetic role.