AIMS: To evaluate cell growth and the pattern of p53 suppressor gene expression in atypical primary acquired melanosis (PAM) and in recurrent conjunctival melanoma. METHODS: Eighteen specimens of PAM with atypia and 24 specimens, comprising early and late lesions, from 12 patients with conjunctival melanoma were stained for the proliferating cell nuclear antigen using the PC10 antibody, and for the p53 gene product using the BP53-12-1, 1801 and DO7 clones. The immunoreactive cells were counted manually and the data evaluated statistically. RESULTS: Seven of nine PAM specimens progressing to melanoma expressed PC10. None of these lesions expressed the p53 gene product. The number of proliferating cells was higher in the late than in the early lesions of conjunctival melanoma. Four of the 12 recurrent melanomas displayed focal, but minimal, p53 expression. The proliferating cell count in the p53 positive tumours was very similar to that of the p53 negative conjunctival melanomas. CONCLUSION: Examination of the expression of proliferating cells in atypical PAM may be used as an adjunct to predict which lesions will progress to melanoma. The increase in the number of proliferating cells over time in recurrent conjunctival melanomas probably reflects more aggressive behaviour and may be used to monitor recurrence. The absence of p53 expression in PAM and minimal staining of conjunctival melanomas did not correlate with cell growth, suggesting that alterations in the p53 tumour suppressor gene are uncommon and late events in conjunctival melanoma, and that p53 expression is unlikely to be a useful prognostic indicator.