Recent reports suggest that the radiation-induced, p53-dependent, apoptotic response is aberrant in ataxia telangiectasia (AT) cells. We investigated the possibility that an aberrant apoptotic response to ionizing radiation may also be the characteristic of AT heterozygotes and may facilitate in discriminating AT heterozygotes from the general population. Log phase, Epstein Barr virus (EBV) transformed lymphoblastoid cell lines and primary lymphocytes from three AT families were irradiated and the apoptotic response at 30h post radiation was measured by flow cytometry using TUNEL and hypodiploid methods. Our results show that the apoptotic response of AT homozygote (ATM-/-), AT heterozygote (ATM+/-) and normal cells (ATM+/+) to ionizing radiation, measured by the hypodiploid and TUNEL methods using flow cytometry, is dose and time dependent. Furthermore, this response is paradoxical in that ATM (-/-) lymphoblastoid cells were characterized by a reduced post radiation apoptotic response compared to their normal counterparts. Heterozygote (ATM+/-) lymphoblastoid cells displayed an intermediate response to ionizing radiation. In contrast, primary, non-transformed AT cells exhibited the same apoptotic response as their normal counterparts. Our results thus indicate that pre-radiation, EBV-transformed, lymphoblastoid cell lines from individual families may be useful in discriminating ATM status, but patient-derived, primary AT homozygous, heterozygous and normal primary cultured lymphocytes cannot be discriminated by this assay.