Mammalian cells are extremely sensitive to gamma rays at mitosis, the time at which their chromatin is maximally condensed. The radiation-induced killing of mitotic cells is well described by single-hit inactivation kinetics. To investigate if radiation hypersensitivity by single-hit inactivation correlated with chromatin condensation, Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) K1 (wild-type) and xrs-5 (radiosensitive mutant) cells were synchronized by mitotic shake-off procedures and the densities of their chromatin cross sections and their radiosensitivities were measured immediately and 2 h into G1 phase. The chromatin of G1-phase CHO K1 cells was dispersed uniformly throughout their nuclei, and its average density was at least three times less than in the chromosomes of mitotic CHO K1 cells. The alpha-inactivation co-efficient of mitotic CHO K1 cells was approximately 2.0 Gy(-1) and decreased approximately 10-fold when cells entered G1 phase. The density of chromatin in CHO xrs-5 cell chromosomes at mitosis was greater than in CHO K1 cell chromosomes, and the radiosensitivity of mitotic CHO xrs-5 cells was the greatest with alpha = 5.1 Gy(-1). In G1 phase, CHO xrs-5 cells were slightly more resistant to radiation than when in mitosis, but a significant proportion of their chromatin was found to remain in condensed form adjacent to the nuclear membrane. These studies indicate that in addition to their known defects in DNA repair and V(D)J recombination, CHO xrs-5 cells may also be defective in some process associated with the condensation and/or dispersion of chromatin at mitosis. Their radiation hypersensitivity could result, in part, from their DNA remaining in compacted form during interphase. The condensation status of DNA in other mammalian cells could define their intrinsic radiosensitivity by single-hit inactivation, the mechanism of cell killing which dominates at the dose fraction size (1.8-2.0 Gy) most commonly used in radiotherapy.