The cell cycle regulatory tumor suppressor proteins p53 and pRB are targeted for inactivation by several tumor viruses, including the high-risk types of human papillomaviruses (HPVs) via interactions of the HPV E6 and E7 oncoproteins with p53 and pRB, respectively. p53 plays a central role in a signal transduction pathway that mediates G1 arrest after DNA damage, though the mechanism by which G1 arrest occurs has not been elucidated. The cyclin-associated protein p21waf1/cip1 has recently been shown to be induced by p53 and to inhibit cyclin complex-mediated phosphorylation of pRB in vitro. Thus, we investigated a possible role for pRB in the p53-mediated DNA damage response. After gamma-irradiation, cells expressing wild-type p53 arrested in G1, contained increased levels of WAF1/CIP1 mRNA, and demonstrated accumulation of hypophosphorylated pRB. In contrast, cell lines with abnormal p53 genes or with p53 functionally inactivated by the E6 oncoprotein of HPV16 (a high-risk HPV) failed to arrest in G1, did not elevate WAF1/CIP1 mRNA, and did not accumulate hypophosphorylated pRB. Despite apparently normal elevation of p53 protein and WAF1/CIP1 mRNA after irradiation, cells expressing HPV16 E7 also failed to arrest in G1 and did not accumulate hypophosphorylated pRB. Disruption of RB genes alone did not totally abrogate this G1 arrest. Our results suggest that p53 indirectly regulates phosphorylation of pRB and that pRB and/or other pRB-like molecules that bind to HPV16 E7 participate in the DNA damage-mediated G1 arrest signal. In the process of HPV infection, the HPV E6 and E7 oncoproteins may undermine this cell cycle checkpoint, contributing to the accumulation of genetic alterations during tumorigenesis.