Mutant forms of the gene encoding the tumor suppressor p53 are found in numerous human malignancies, but the physiologic function of p53 and the effects of mutations on this function are unknown. The p53 protein binds DNA in a sequence-specific manner and thus may regulate gene transcription. Cotransfection experiments showed that wild-type p53 activated the expression of genes adjacent to a p53 DNA binding site. The level of activation correlated with DNA binding in vitro. Oncogenic forms of p53 lost this activity. Moreover, all mutants inhibited the activity of coexpressed wild-type p53, providing a basis for the selection of such mutants during tumorigenesis.