Leukemic U-937 cells, which lack normal p53, were stably transfected with a temperature-sensitive mutant of p53 to investigate the consequences for growth and differentiation. On induction of wild-type p53 activity at the permissive temperature, some of these cells underwent maturation as judged by the capacity for oxidative burst and the appearance of monocyte related cell surface molecules. Moreover, wild-type p53-expressing cells were more sensitive than p53-negative control cells to induction of differentiation by 1,25- dihydroxycholecalciferol; a twofold to fourfold increase of the fraction of cells showing signs of terminal maturation was observed when wild-type p53-expressing cells were incubated with 1,25- dihydroxycholecalciferol at concentrations that only slightly affected control cells. Whereas wild-type p53 activity per se induced maturation of certain cells, other underwent cell death judging from the reduced capability to exclude trypan blue and the appearance of fragmented DNA in flow cytometric analysis. The p53-induced cell death could be inhibited by incubation with 1,25-dihydroxy-cholecalciferol, but not all-trans retinoic acid. Thus, 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol, seemed to increase the survival of wild-type p53-expressing cells and to cooperate with wild-type p53 to induce differentiation. The data imply that p53-mediated maturation in U-937 cells depends on optimal regulation of signals for differentiation, survival and proliferation, and suggest a role for p53 in the differentiation induction of leukemic cells.