There is little information regarding the molecular mechanisms of hepatocarcinogenesis. We studied the p53 gene at the DNA, RNA, and protein level in seven human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)-derived cell lines; six of seven showed p53 abnormalities. By Southern blotting, the p53 gene was found to be partially deleted in Hep 3B and rearranged in SK-HEP-1 cells. Transcripts of the p53 gene were undetectable in Hep 3B as well as in FOCUS cells that had no apparent deletion or rearrangement of the p53 gene. Immunoprecipitation after [35S]methionine labeling of HCC cells demonstrated that p53 protein was absent in Hep 3B and FOCUS and reduced in concentration in PLC/PRF/5 cells. p53 synthesized by Mahlavu cells showed a slower migration on SDS/polyacrylamide gels suggesting it was an abnormal protein. In Huh7 cells, p53 protein had a prolonged half-life leading to its accumulation in the nuclei; increased levels of p53 protein were also found by immunoblotting. The p53 gene and its expression appeared to be unaltered in the hepatoblastoma-derived Hep G2 cell line. We found that the loss of p53 expression did not occur as a late in vitro event in the FOCUS cell line because p53 protein was also nondetectable at an early passage. We conclude that the loss of p53 expression or the presence of abnormal forms of the protein are frequently associated with HCC cell lines. These observations suggest that alterations in p53 may be important events in the transformation of hepatocytes to the malignant phenotype.