Molecular changes associated with cellular aging in a strain of human diploid fibroblasts, IMR-90, were addressed by analyzing the expression of the tumor suppressor protein, p53. In all studies, IMR-90 cultures were characterized as "young" or "near-senescent" based on morphology, rate of population doubling, capacity for DNA synthesis, and presence of established markers for senescence. When p53 was immunoprecipitated by monoclonal antibodies and detected by Western immunoblot analysis, more protein per cell was detected in the near-senescent cultures. A greater than 10-fold increase in p53 protein was measured with the PAb 1801 (N-terminal-specific) anti-p53 antibody, whereas PAb 122 (C-terminal-specific) measured a 5-fold increase. Although near-senescent cultures demonstrated a higher level of p53 than young cells, these cultures had similar charges and molecular weight p53 isoforms when analyzed by two-dimensional Western blots. When p53 RNA was compared to total RNA there was a decrease in p53 RNA with age, but on a per cell basis p53 RNA was elevated. These results provide evidence for transcriptional regulation of p53 during aging and support the hypothesis that elevated levels of p53 protein may play a role in cellular senescence.