The microbial toxin okadaic acid (OA) specifically inhibits PPP-type ser/thr protein phosphatases. OA is an established tumor promoter with numerous cellular effects that include p53-mediated cell cycle arrest. In T51B rat liver epithelial cells, a model useful for tumor promotion studies, p53 activation is induced by tumor-promoting (low nanomolar) concentrations of OA. Two phosphatases sensitive to these concentrations of OA, PP2A and protein phosphatase 5 (PP5), have been implicated as negative regulators of p53. In this study we examined the respective roles of these phosphatases in p53 activation in non-neoplastic T51B cells. Increases in p53 activity were deduced from levels of p21 (cip1) and/or the rat orthologue of mdm2, two p53-regulated gene products whose induction was blocked by siRNA-mediated knockdown of p53. As observed with 10 nM OA, both phospho-ser15-p53 levels and p53 activity were increased by 10 microM fostriecin or SV40 small t-antigen. Both of these treatments selectively inhibit PP2A but not PP5. siRNA-mediated knockdown of PP2A, but not PP5, also increased p53 activity. Finally, adenoviral-mediated over-expression of an OA-resistant form of PP5 did not prevent increased phospho-ser15-p53, p53 protein, or p53 activity caused by 10 nM OA. Together these results indicate that PP5 blockade is not responsible for OA-induced p53 activation and G1 arrest in T51B cells. In contrast, specific blockade of PP2A mimics p53-related responses to OA in T51B cells, suggesting that PP2A is the target for this response to OA.