Mutations in the SMN1 (survival motor neuron 1) gene cause spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). We now show that SMN protein, the SMN1 gene product, interacts directly with the tumor suppressor protein, p53. Pathogenic missense mutations in SMN reduce both self-association and p53 binding by SMN, and the extent of the reductions correlate with disease severity. The inactive, truncated form of SMN produced by the SMN2 gene in SMA patients fails to bind p53 efficiently. SMN and p53 co-localize in nuclear Cajal bodies, but p53 redistributes to the nucleolus in fibroblasts from SMA patients. These results suggest a functional interaction between SMN and p53, and the potential for apoptosis when this interaction is impaired may explain motor neuron death in SMA.