Twenty cell lines from 17 individuals with malignant mesothelioma have been examined for p53 alterations by direct sequencing of genomic DNA, by evaluation of mRNA expression levels, and by immunocytochemical analysis of p53 protein expression in comparison with normal human pleural mesothelial cells. The results of this study show p53 abnormalities in cell lines from 3 individuals. These include 2 point mutations and one null cell line. Interestingly, while both cell lines with point mutations exhibit high levels of p53 protein, normal mesothelial cells as well as 12 of the mesotheliomas evaluated express low but significant levels. In addition, sequencing of K-ras at codons 12, 13, and 61 reveals wild-type sequence in all 20 mesothelioma cell lines. The capacity to induce tumors in athymic nude mice did not correlate with the presence of a p53 mutation or elevated p53 protein levels. These data suggest that neither p53 alteration nor K-ras activation constitutes a critical step in the development of human mesothelioma.