As one step in developing an assay for quantifying the induction of malignant transformation of human cells by ionizing radiation, we exposed cells from a non-tumorigenic, infinite life span, near-diploid fibroblast strain MSU-1.1 to 4.35 Gy 60Co radiation and assayed them for focus formation. The mean frequency of foci in the irradiated population was 6 x 10(-7) cells assayed. No foci were found in the control cells. Of four focus-derived cell strains studied in detail, two produced malignant tumours within 3-7 weeks. The other two did not produce tumours during the 12-month period of study. The tumours from one strain were classified as sarcomas composed exclusively of spindle-shaped cells. Tumours from the other strain were sarcomas consisting of a mixed population of round and spindle cells. Immunoprecipitation analysis of the status of the p53 gene in the focus-derived strains, using a mutant-specific anti-body (Pab240) and an antibody that recognizes both mutant and wild-type p53 protein (Pab421), showed that the tumorigenic strains were completely devoid of p53 protein. One non-tumorigenic strain expressed wild-type p53 protein, and the other expressed a lower molecular weight form of the protein. Karyotypic analysis showed that the tumour-derived cells from one tumorigenic strain had lost one copy of chromosome 6, 14, 16 and 17. The tumour-derived cells from the second strain had lost one copy of chromosome 7, 13, 14 and 17 and part of chromosome 6, as well as part of the other copy of chromosome 7 and 17. These results suggest that the common loss of one copy of chromosome 14, 17 and part of 6 plays a causal role in the malignant transformation of these cells. Furthermore, the results indicate that it will be possible to develop a system that uses near-diploid human fibroblasts to quantify radiation-induced malignant transformation.