Although rodent cells have been immortalized following transfection with a mutant p53 gene, the role of p53 in the immortalization of human cells is unknown. Therefore, human epithelial cell lines were examined for p53 mutations in exons 4-9 which include the evolutionarily conserved regions. A spontaneously immortalized skin keratinocyte cell line, HaCat, and three ras-transfected clones, have a p53 mutational spectrum that is typical of ultraviolet light induced mutations. A normal finite lifespan cell strain (184) and two benzo[a]pyrene immortalized mammary epithelial cell lines derived from 184 (184A1 and 184B5) contain wild type p53 sequences in exons 4-9, although elevated levels of nuclear p53 indicate an alteration in the stability of the normally transient protein. Wild type p53 was found in human bronchial, esophageal and hepatic epithelial cells immortalized by SV40 T antigen gene and human renal epithelial cells immortalized by adenovirus 5. BEAS-2B, an SV40 T antigen immortalized bronchial epithelial cell line and two subclones, have a germline polymorphism at codon 47. Inactivation of p53 by mechanisms such as mutation or complexing with proteins of DNA tumor viruses appears to be important in the immortalization of human epithelial cells.