We have examined the effects of the naturally occurring dipeptide carnosine (beta-alanyl-L-histidine) on the growth, morphology, and lifespan of cultured human diploid fibroblasts. With human foreskin cells, HFF-1, and fetal lung cells, MRC-5, we have shown that carnosine at high concentrations (20-50 mM) in standard medium retards senescence and rejuvenates senescent cultures. These late-passage cultures preserve a nonsenescent morphology in the presence of carnosine, in comparison to the senescent morphology first described by Hayflick and Moorhead. Transfer of these late-passage cells in medium containing carnosine to unsupplemented normal medium results in the appearance of the senescent phenotype. The serial subculture of cells in the presence of carnosine does not prevent the Hayflick limit to growth, although the lifespan in population doublings as well as chronological age is often increased. This effect is obscured by the normal variability of human fibroblast lifespans, which we have confirmed. Transfer of cells approaching senescence in normal medium to medium supplemented with carnosine rejuvenates the cells but the extension in lifespan is variable. Neither D-carnosine, (beta-alanyl-D-histidine), homocarnosine, anserine, nor beta-alanine had the same effects as carnosine on human fibroblasts. Carnosine is an antioxidant, but it is more likely that it preserves cellular integrity by its effects on protein metabolism.