In addition to binding DNA in a sequence-specific manner, p53 can interact with nucleic acids in a sequence-independent manner. p53 can bind short single-stranded DNA and double-stranded DNA containing nucleotide loops; these diverse associations may be critical for p53 signal transduction. In this study, we analyzed p53 binding to DNA fragments containing insertion/deletion mismatches (IDLs). p53 required an intact central domain and dimerization domain for high affinity complex formation with IDLs. In fact, the C terminus of p53 (amino acids 293-393) was functionally replaceable with a foreign dimerization domain in IDL binding assays. From saturation binding studies we determined that the KD of p53 binding to IDLs was 45 pM as compared with a KD of 31 pM for p53 binding to DNA fragments containing a consensus binding site. Consistent with these dissociation constants, p53-IDL complexes were dissociated with relatively low concentrations of competitor consensus site-containing DNA. Although p53 has a higher affinity for DNA with a consensus site as compared with IDLs, the relative number and availability of each form of DNA in a cell immediately after DNA damage may promote p53 interaction with DNA lesions. Understanding how the sequence-specific and nonspecific DNA binding activities of p53 are integrated will contribute to our knowledge of how signaling cascades are initiated after DNA damage.