Mutations in, and aberrant expression of, the p53 tumor suppressor gene were assessed in 17 cell lines derived from human malignant brain tumors (glioblastoma multiforme). Exons 5 through 8 were screened by single strand conformational polymorphism analysis (SSCP), followed by direct DNA sequencing. Mutations were found in 6 of 17 glioma cell lines, i.e., at a frequency similar to that found in primary malignant gliomas. Loss of the wild type allele was observed in 4 of the mutated cell lines. Two cell lines had the same mutation (CGG-->TGG; Arg-->Trp) in codon 248. Five of 6 mutations were transitions, 4 of which occurred at CpG dinucleotides. In one cell line a 10-bp deletion at the intron 4/exon 5 junction was found. Five of 6 glioma cell lines contained a mutation identical to that in the respective primary tumor despite prolonged in vitro culture (140-221 passages). Thus, the acquisition of p53 mutations during culture appears to be infrequent. Two cell lines derived from heterozygous tumors maintained the wild type p53 allele during long term culture. p53 protein levels were assessed by immunofluorescence cytochemistry and immunoprecipitation followed by Western blot analysis and revealed elevated levels of the p53 protein, although to a variable extent, in all cell lines with p53 mutations. A marked p53 protein accumulation was also observed in two cell lines lacking p53 mutations in exons 5 through 8, indicating that a prolonged half life of the gene product is not solely dependent on an aberrant coding sequence. The remaining cell lines had either low levels or no detectable p53 protein; one of the latter contained a gross rearrangement of the p53 gene. Our results suggest that with respect to p53 gene status, glioma cell lines usually resemble the original tumors and may, therefore, be suitable for studying the biological changes associated with p53 mutations in glial tumors.