Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in tobacco smoke may cause human lung cancer via metabolic activation to ultimate carcinogens. p53 is one of the most commonly mutated tumor suppressor genes in this disease. An analysis of the p53 mutational database shows that G to T transversions are a signature mutation of lung cancer. Aldo-keto reductases (AKRs) activate PAH trans-dihydrodiol proximate carcinogens to yield their corresponding reactive and redox-active o-quinones, e.g., benzo[a]pyrene-7,8-dione (BP-7,8-dione). We employed a yeast reporter system to determine whether PAH o-quinones or the ROS they generate cause change-in-function mutations in p53. N-Methyl-N-nitroso-N'-nitro-guanidine, a standard alkylating mutagen was used as a positive control. MNNG caused a dose-dependent increase in mutant yeast colonies and at the highest concentrations 8-14% of the yeast colonies were mutated and were characterized by G:C to A:T transitions in the p53 DNA binding domain. Treatment of p53 cDNA with micromolar concentrations of (+/-)-anti-7,8-dihydroxy-9alpha,10alpha-epoxy-7,8,9,10-tetrahydro-benzo[a]pyrene, (anti-BPDE, an ultimate carcinogen) or sub-micromolar concentrations of BP-7,8-dione in the presence of redox-cycling conditions (NADPH and CuCl(2)) also caused p53 mutations in a dose-dependent manner. We found that no mutants were observed with PAH o-quinones or NADPH alone. p53 mutagenesis by BP-7,8-dione was attenuated by ROS scavengers and completely abrogated by a combination of superoxide dismutase and catalase, indicating that both superoxide anion and hydroxyl radicals were the responsible mutagens. The bulk of the mutations detected were single-point mutations and were not random in occurrence. Over 46% of BP-7,8-dione-induced mutations were G:C to T:A transversions, consistent with the formation of 8-oxo-dGuo or its secondary oxidation products. In addition, 25% of these mutations were at hotspots in p53 which are known to be mutated in lung cancer. Together these data suggest that PAH o-quinones generate an endogenous mutagen (ROS) which leads to p53 inactivation. These observations provide an alternative route to G to T transversions that dominate in p53 in lung cancer.