The p53 tumor-suppressor protein has previously been shown to bind double-stranded and single-stranded DNA. We report that the p53 protein can bind single-stranded DNA ends and catalyze DNA renaturation and DNA strand transfer. Both a bacterially expressed wild-type p53 protein and a glutathione S-transferase-wild-type p53 fusion protein catalyzed renaturation of different short (25- to 76-nt) complementary single-stranded DNA fragments and promoted strand transfer between short (36-bp) duplex DNA and complementary single-stranded DNA. Mutant p53 fusion proteins carrying amino acid substitutions Glu-213, Ile-237, or Tyr-238, derived from mutant p53 genes of Burkitt lymphomas, failed to catalyze these reactions. Wild-type p53 had significantly higher binding affinity for short (36- to 76-nt) than for longer (> or = 462-nt) single-stranded DNA fragments in an electrophoretic mobility-shift assay. Moreover, electron microscopy showed that p53 preferentially binds single-stranded DNA ends. Binding of DNA ends to p53 oligomers may allow alignment of complementary strands. These findings suggest that p53 may play a direct role in the repair of DNA breaks, including the joining of complementary single-stranded DNA ends.