p53 mutations appear to be early events in skin carcinogenesis induced by chronic UVB irradiation. Clusters of epidermal cells that express p53 in mutant conformation ("p53 positive foci") are easily detected by immunohistochemical staining long before the appearance of skin carcinomas or their precursor lesions. In a hairless mouse model, we determined the dose-time dependency of the induction of these p53+ foci and investigated the relationship with the induction of skin carcinomas. The density of p53+ foci may be a good direct indicator of tumor risk. Hairless SKH1 mice were exposed to either of two regimens of daily UVB (500 or 250 J/m2 broadband UV from Philips TL12 lamps; 54% UVB 280-315 nm). With the high-dose regimen, the average number of p53+ foci in a dorsal skin area (7.2 cm2) increased rapidly from 9.0 +/- 2.1 (SE) at 15 days to 470 +/- 80 (SE) at 40 days. At half that daily dose, the induction of p53+ foci was slower by a factor of 1.49 +/- 0.15, very similar to a previously observed slower induction of squamous cell carcinomas by a factor of 1.54 +/- 0.02. In a double-log plot of the average number of p53 + foci versus time, the curves for the two exposure regimens ran parallel (slope, 3.7 +/- 0.7), similar to the curves for the number of tumors versus time (slope, 6.9 +/- 0.8). The difference in slopes (3.7 versus 6.9) is in line with the contention that more rate-limiting steps are needed to develop a tumor than a p53+ focus. By the time the first tumors appear (around 7-8 weeks with the high daily dose), the dorsal skin contains >100 p53+ foci/cm2. To further validate the density of p53+ foci as a direct measure of tumor risk, we carried out experiments with transgenic mice with an enhanced susceptibility to UV carcinogenesis, homozygous Xpa knockout mice (deficient in nucleotide excision repair) and heterozygousp53 knockout mice (i.a. partially deficient in apoptosis). In both of these cancer-prone strains, the p53+ foci were induced at markedly increased rates, corresponding to increased rates of carcinoma formation. Therefore, the frequency of p53+ foci appears to correlate well with UVB-induced tumor risk.