Recent experiments have suggested that p53 action may be mediated through its interaction with DNA. We have now identified 18 human genomic clones that bind to p53 in vitro. Precise mapping of the binding sequences within these clones revealed a consensus binding site with a striking internal symmetry, consisting of two copies of the 10 base pair motif 5'-PuPuPuC(A/T)(T/A)GPyPyPy-3' separated by 0-13 base pairs. One copy of the motif was insufficient for binding, and subtle alterations of the motif, even when present in multiple copies, resulted in loss of affinity for p53. Mutants of p53, representing each of the four "hot spots" frequently altered in human cancers, failed to bind to the consensus dimer. These results define the DNA sequence elements with which p53 interacts in vitro and which may be important for p53 action in vivo.