Glioblastoma multiforme is the most severe form of brain cancer. First line therapy includes the methylating agent temozolomide and/or the chloroethylating nitrosoureas [1-(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea; CNU] nimustine [1-(4-amino-2-methyl-5-pyrimidinyl)methyl-3-(2-chloroethyl)-3-nitrosourea; ACNU], carmustine [1,3-bis(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea; BCNU], or lomustine [1-(2-chloroethyl)-3-cyclohexyl-1-nitrosourea; CCNU]. The mechanism of cell death after CNU treatment is largely unknown. Here we show that ACNU and BCNU induce apoptosis in U87MG [p53 wild-type (p53wt)] and U138MG [p53 mutant (p53mt)] glioma cells. However, contrary to what we observed previously for temozolomide, chloroethylating drugs are more toxic for p53-mutated glioma cells and induce both apoptosis and necrosis. Inactivation of p53 by pifithrin-alpha or siRNA down-regulation sensitized p53wt but not p53mt glioma cells to ACNU and BCNU. ACNU and BCNU provoke the formation of DNA double-strand breaks (DSB) in glioma cells that precede the onset of apoptosis and necrosis. Although these DSBs are repaired in p53wt cells, they accumulate in p53mt cells. Therefore, functional p53 seems to stimulate the repair of CNU-induced cross-links and/or DSBs generated from CNU-induced lesions. Expression analysis revealed an up-regulation of xpc and ddb2 mRNA in response to ACNU in U87MG but not U138MG cells, indicating p53 regulates a pathway that involves these DNA repair proteins. ACNU-induced apoptosis in p53wt glioma cells is executed via both the extrinsic and intrinsic apoptotic pathway, whereas in p53mt glioma cells, the mitochondrial pathway becomes activated. The data suggest that p53 has opposing effects in gliomas treated with methylating or chloroethylating agents and, therefore, the p53 status should be taken into account when deciding which therapeutic drug to use.