A putative tumor suppressor gene, p53, has been shown to be altered in a variety of human tumor types. The primary mechanism of p53 inactivation is believed to be mutation of one allele followed by loss of the second allele. Malignant mesothelioma is a tumor that has been highly associated with exposure to asbestos fibers, which are known to cause chromosomal abnormalities in mesothelial cells. We have examined four mesothelioma cell lines for genetic abnormalities in p53. Cytogenetic analysis revealed that two of the four tumors had abnormalities (numerical and/or structural) of chromosome 17 (the locus of the p53 gene). Restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis using a chromosome 17p-specific probe (pYNZ22) revealed that two tumors had loss of heterozygosity in the region of 17p13. The relative level of p53 mRNA expression was examined by Northern analysis, with one tumor showing negligible expression of p53 mRNA. The complementary DNA of p53 was generated from the three tumors showing detectable mRNA expression, and the region between codons 70 and 319 was amplified by the polymerase chain reaction and sequenced. DNA single-base substitutions were detected in two of the tumor cell lines, each resulting in amino acid substitutions. One tumor had an arginine to histidine substitution at position 175, and one tumor had a glycine to aspartic acid substitution at position 245. The observed mutations took place in regions of high cross-species sequence homology, indicating that these regions may be functionally important. The correlation of chromosomal loss in 17p on the cytogenetic and molecular level along with p53 mRNA expression and DNA sequence data indicate that genetic alterations in p53 could be a feature of malignant mesotheliomas and may reveal an important role of asbestos fibers in tumor suppressor gene inactivation.