The cellular phosphoprotein p53 inhibits progression through the mammalian cell cycle. Both p53 alleles are frequently mutated in human tumours, indicating that p53 is a tumour suppressor. Recent studies have suggested that p53 functions as a transcriptional activator, but the significance of this activity in cell-cycle control has not been established. The adenovirus 2 (Ad2) early 1B (E1B) 55K protein binds to p53 in transformed cells and contributes to oncogenic transformation by Ad2 (refs 10-12). Here we report that mutants of E1B 55K and wild-type Ad12 E1B 54K proteins show a strong correlation between their ability to inhibit p53-mediated transcriptional activation and their ability to cooperate with adenovirus E1A protein in the transformation of primary cells. These results indicate that p53 probably inhibits cell cycling by functioning as a transcription factor.