The high prevalence and great diversity of p53 tumor suppressor gene mutations in human tumors call for development of therapeutic molecules that rescue function of aberrant p53 protein. P53 mutations also offer new approaches to the study of the origins of mutations in human cancer. An experimental mouse model with a genetically modified but normal functioning p53 gene harboring the human rather than the murine core domain, would be of considerable benefit to research on both cancer therapeutics and etiology; however, it is uncertain whether such mice would permit biological functions of p53 to be retained. Using a Cre/lox P gene-targeting approach, we have constructed a human p53 knock-in (hupki) mouse strain in which exons 4-9 of the endogenous mouse p53 allele were replaced with the homologous, normal human p53 gene sequence. The chimeric p53 allele (p53(KI)) is properly spliced, transcribed in various tissues at levels equivalent to wild-type mice, and yields cDNA with the anticipated sequence, that is, with a core domain matching that of humans. The hupki p53 protein binds to p53 consensus sequences in gel mobility shift assays and accumulates in the nucleus of hupki fibroblasts in response to UV irradiation, as is characteristic of wild-type p53. Induction of various p53-regulated genes in spleen of gamma-irradiated homozygous hupki mice (p53(KI/KI)), and the kinetics of p53-dependent apoptosis in thymocytes are similar to results with wild-type (p53(+/+)) mice, further indicating normal p53 pathway function in the hupki strain. The mice are phenotypically normal and do not develop spontaneous tumors at an early age, in contrast to knock-out (p53(-/-)) strains with a defective p53 gene. The chimeric (p53(KI)) allele thus appears to provide a biological equivalent to the endogenous murine (p53(+)) gene. This strain is a unique tool for examining in vivo spontaneous and induced mutations in human p53 gene sequences for comparison with published human tumor p53 mutation spectra. In addition, the hupki strain paves the way for mouse models in pre-clinical testing of pharmaceuticals designed to modulate DNA-binding activity of human p53.