In unstressed cells, the tumor suppressor protein p53, a tetrameric transcription factor, is present in a latent state and is maintained at low levels through targeted degradation. A variety of cellular stresses including DNA damage, hypoxia, nucleotide depletion, viral infection, and cytokine-activated signaling pathways that transiently stabilize the p53 protein, cause it to accumulate in the nucleus, and activate it as a transcription factor. Activation leads either to growth arrest at the G1/S or G2/M transitions of the cell cycle or to apoptosis. The molecular mechanisms by which stabilization and activation occur are incompletely understood, but accumulating evidence points to roles for multiple posttranslational modifications in mediating these events through several potentially interacting but distinct pathways. Both the approximately 100 amino acid N-terminal and approximately 90 amino acid C-terminal domains are highly modified by phosphorylation and acetylation, whereas modifications to the central sequence-specific DNA binding domain have not been reported. Seven serines and one threonine in the first 46 residues of the transactivation domain and four to five serines in the carboxyl-terminal domain are now known to be phosphorylated, and Lys320 and Lys382 in the carboxyl-terminal domain (human p53) can be acetylated. Antibodies that recognize p53 only when it has been modified at specific sites have been developed by several laboratories, and studies with these have shown that most of the known posttranslational modifications are induced when cells are exposed to DNA-damaging agents. Exceptions are Ser378, which is reported to be constitutively phosphorylated, and Ser376, which is dephosphorylated in response to DNA damage. These recent results, coupled with biochemical and genetic studies, suggest that several amino-terminal phosphorylations can be important in stabilizing p53 in response to DNA damage and in directing acetylation at C-terminal sites. DNA damage-induced modifications to the C-terminus inhibit the ability of this domain to negatively regulate sequence-specific DNA binding either by inducing a conformational change in the protein or by inhibiting non-sequence-specific DNA binding by the C-terminus. C-terminal modifications also modulate the oligomerization state of p53, and may modulate nuclear import/export. Modifications in response to DNA damage to other components that interact with p53 may also be important. In most cases, clear roles for specific modifications, interactions among individual modifications, and the enzymes responsible for each modification remain to be defined. Nevertheless, the field appears poised for major advances in the understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate p53 function.