Human tumor cells have properties in vitro or in surrogate hosts that are distinct from those of normal cells, such as immortality, anchorage independence, and tumor formation in nude mice. However, different cells from individual tumors may exhibit some, but not all of these features. In previous years, human tumor cell lines derived from different tumor and tissue types have been studied to determine those molecular changes that are associated with the in vitro properties listed above and with tumorigenicity in nude mice. In the present study, seven cell lines derived from human tumors were characterized for p53 and ras mutations that may occur in SCC tumor phenotypes and for tumor formation in nude mice. This investigation was designed to examine whether co-occurrence of mutated ras and p53 lead to a malignant stage in the progression process. None of the seven cell lines contained mutations in the recognized "hot spots" of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, but four had a nonsense/splice mutation in codon 126 and a mutation in codon 12 of the H-ras gene. The remaining three cell lines had p53 mutations in intron 5, in codon 193, and a missense mutation in codon 126, respectively. Four of seven cell lines were nontumorigenic; two of these cell lines contained a nonsense p53-126 mutation and mutated ras; one had a missense mutation at codon 126 but no mutated ras; the the fourth had only a p53 mutation at codon 193. Two of the nontumorigenic cell lines were converted to tumorigenicity after treatment with methyl methanesulfonate or N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine with no apparent additional mutations in either gene. Our analysis revealed that there was a high frequency of genetic diversity and mutations in both p53 and H-ras. There was also a lack of a causal relationship in the presence of mutations in p53 and the cells' ability to exhibit a malignant potential in nude mice.