We have investigated the effect of estrogen on p53 cellular location and its influence on tumor cell susceptibility to tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-mediated cytotoxic action. For this purpose, we have used the TNF-sensitive human breast adenocarcinoma MCF-7 and its derivative, the TNF-resistant 1001 clone. Our data indicate that although estrogen receptor (ER)alpha is present in both cell lines, estrogen treatment (1x10(-8) M) has an influence only on the MCF-7 cells and protects these cells from the TNF cytotoxicity. This protective effect is associated with translocation of p53 from the nucleus to the cytoplasm in p53 wild-type MCF-7 and not in p53-mutated 1001 cells. The translocation of p53 in MCF-7 cells results in a decrease in its transcriptional activity, as revealed by diminished p21(WAF1/CIP1) induction and an altered ratio of Bax and Bcl-2 proteins. The estrogen-induced effects are reversed by the selective estrogen inhibitor 182, 780 (1x10(-6) M). Interestingly, transient transfection of MCF-7 cells with ERbeta but not ERalpha cDNA encoding plasmid results in retention of p53 in the nucleus, a subsequent potentiation of its transcriptional activity, and in an increased MCF-7 sensitivity to TNF. The estrogen effects on p53 location and transcriptional activity may involve the mdm2 protein since both events were reversed following MCF-7 transfection with plasmid encoding the ARF cDNA. These studies suggest that estrogen-induced MCF-7 cell survival in the presence of TNF requires a transcriptionally active p53 and, more importantly, indicate that introduction of ERbeta can attenuate the estrogen effects on the p53 protein location, its transcriptional activity and also results in a potentiation of cell sensitivity to TNF-mediated cell death.