TP53 serves as a key relay for signals elicited by cellular stresses arising from diverse environmental or therapeutic insults. This relay then activates a cell cycle arrest or cell death program, depending on the stimulus and cell type. The absence of TP53 function disables the cell death or arrest programmes, thereby allowing the emergence of variants with various types of genomic alterations. The data discussed focus on two different types of signals that trigger the TP53 relay system. Firstly, TP53 arrests cell cycle progression in response to the types of DNA damage most commonly detected in cells undergoing tumour progression. Secondly, TP53 is activated by specific depletion of ribonucleotide pools, which prevent cells from entering S phase under conditions that could lead to chromosome breakage. The contribution of both responses limits the emergence of genetic variants. The DNA damage induced arrest appears to be triggered by as few as one double strand break in normal human fibroblasts. Analysis of the arrest kinetics after ionizing radiation shows that TP53 activates a prolonged arrest response in cells with irreparable DNA damage and that high efficiency cell elimination is achieved by a process that can be activated over multiple cell cycles. These data indicate that the primary function of the TP53 arrest/apoptosis pathway in response to double strand break is to eliminate damaged cells from the proliferating population, not to allow additional time for lesion repair. However, it remains possible that repair of other types of damage may benefit from TP53 mediated arrest. Analyses in model genetic systems indicate that the absence of TP53 function allows, but does not ensure, a high intrinsic rate of genetic variation and that instability is increased substantially when cells proceed through S phase under inappropriate growth conditions. This implies that inactivation of TP53 function in combination with other genetic alterations, such as oncogene activation, could accelerate genomic instability and tumour progression.