In response to environmental stress, the p53 phosphoprotein is stabilized and activated to inhibit cell growth. p53 stability and activity are negatively regulated by the murine double minute (Mdm2) oncoprotein in an autoregulatory feedback loop. The inhibitory effect of Mdm2 on p53 has to be tightly regulated for proper p53 activity. Phosphorylation is an important level of p53 regulation. In response to DNA damage, p53 is phosphorylated at several N-terminal serines. In this study we examined the role of Ser20, a potential phosphorylation site in human p53, in the regulation of p53 stability and function. Substitution of Ser20 by Ala (p53-Ala20) significantly increases the susceptibility of human p53 to negative regulation by Mdm2 in vivo, as measured by apoptosis and transcription activation assays. Mutation of Ser20 to Ala renders p53 less stable and more prone to Mdm2-mediated degradation. While the in vitro binding of p53 to Mdm2 is not increased by the Ala20 mutation, the same mutation results in a markedly enhanced binding in vivo. This is consistent with the conclusion that phosphorylation of Ser20 in vivo attenuates the binding of wild-type p53 to Mdm2. Peptides bearing non-phosphorylated Ser20 or Ala20 compete with p53 for Mdm2 binding, while a similar peptide with phosphorylated Ser20 does not. This implies a critical role for Ser20 in modulating the negative regulation of p53 by Mdm2, probably through phosphorylation-dependent inhibition of p53-Mdm2 interaction.