The proto-oncogene c-fos is a major nuclear target for signal transduction pathways involved in the regulation of cell growth, differentiation, and transformation. Using the multistep skin carcinogenesis model, we have directly tested the ability of c-fos-deficient mice to develop cancer. Upon treatment with a tumor promoter, c-fos knockout mice carrying a v-H-ras transgene were able to develop benign tumors with similar kinetics and relative incidence as wild-type animals. However, c-fos-deficient papillomas quickly became very dry and hyperkeratinized, taking on an elongated, horny appearance. While wild-type papillomas eventually progressed into malignant tumors, c-fos-deficient tumors failed to undergo malignant conversion. Experiments in which v-H-ras-expressing keratinocytes were grafted onto nude mice suggest that c-fos-deficient cells have an intrinsic defect that hinders tumorigenesis. These results demonstrate that a member of the AP-1 family of transcription factors is required for the development of a malignant tumor.