In an effort to correlate the biological activity of the p53 protein with its conformation, we analysed 14 p53 mutants representative of the most frequently observed protein alterations in human cancers, at codons 175, 248 and 273 (22% of all mutations thus far reported), all three of which contained a CpG dinucleotide. Strikingly, most of the mutants at codons 248 and 273 did not display any change in their conformation, as probed by monoclonal antibodies PAb240 and PAb1620 or by binding to hsp70 protein. For all 14 mutants tested, we found a strict correlation between the transactivation properties of p53, tested either on RGC sequences or using the WAF-1 promoter, and inhibition of cell proliferation. All these mutants showed nuclear localization. Several mutants, present at a low incidence in human tumours, displayed wild-type activity in all our assays, suggesting that the presence of a mutation is not strictly correlated with p53 protein inactivation in tumours. Further analysis of nine thus far undescribed p53 mutants at codon 175 revealed a wild-type or mutant behaviour. All these results suggest that the occurrence of a mutation is dependent on two criteria: (i) the mutability of a given codon, such as those containing a CpG dinucleotide; (ii) the resulting amino acids, eventually leading to synthesis of a p53 conferring a growth advantage on the cell.