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Normal diploid cells have a limited replicative potential in culture, with progressively increasing interdivision time. Rarely, cell lines arise which can divide indefinitely; like tumor cells, such "immortal" lines display frequent chromosomal aberrations which may reflect high rates of recombination. Recombination frequencies within a plasmid substrate were 3.5-fold higher in nine immortal human cell lines than in six untransformed cell strains. Expression of HsRAD51, a human homolog of the yeast RAD51 and Escherichia coli recA recombinase genes, was 4.5-fold higher in immortal cell lines than in mortal cells. Stable transformation of human fibroblasts with simian virus 40 large T antigen prior to cell immortalization increased both chromosomal recombination and the level of HsRAD51 transcripts by two- to fivefold. T-antigen induction of recombination was efficiently blocked by introduction of HsRAD51 antisense (but not control) oligonucleotides spanning the initiation codon, implying that HsRAD51 expression mediates augmented recombination. Since p53 binds and inactivates HsRAD51, T-antigen-p53 association may block such inactivation and liberate HsRAD51. Upregulation of HsRAD51 transcripts in T-antigen-transformed and other immortal cells suggests that recombinase activation can also occur at the RNA level and may facilitate cell transformation to immortality.