The endogenous metabolite, 2-methoxyestradiol (2ME), is an inhibitor of tubulin polymerization and is therefore toxic to dividing fast-growing tumor cells. Transformed cells are not equally susceptible to the effects of 2ME. In this study the effects of 1-2 microM doses of 2ME on cell cycle progression, apoptosis induction and on p53 levels were evaluated using flow cytometry in cells with different p53 status. No effect of 2ME was seen in normal human skin fibroblast strain HSF43 with wild-type (wt) p53. However, in SV40 T antigen transformed HSF43 cells (line E8T4), 2ME caused a prominent G2/M arrest, with subsequent micronuclei formation followed by apoptosis. Increased p53 levels were present in the G2/M cells. Our results suggest that 2ME, being a microtubule poison, may release the bound p53 from T antigen, and that this p53 may enhance the apoptotic effects. Two lymphoblast cell lines derived from the same donor, TK6, expressing low levels of wt p53, and WTK1, expressing high levels of mutant p53, showed similar moderate responses to 2ME at 37 degrees C. The effects included enhanced apoptosis and a modest G2/M block. No increase in p53 levels was seen. However, at the permissive temperature of 30 degrees C marked increases in apoptosis and a prominent G2/M-phase block, similar to that seen in the E8T4 cells, were present in the WTK1 cells, indicating that the high levels of mutant p53 have now become functional, enhancing the apoptotic effects initiated by 2ME.