A three-color chromosome painting technique was used to examine the spontaneous and radiation-induced chromosomal damage in peripheral lymphocytes and lymphoblastoid cells from 11 patients with ataxia telangiectasia (AT) and from 14 individuals heterozygous for an AT allele. In addition, cells from two homozygous and six obligate heterozygous carriers of mutations in the Nijmegen breakage syndrome gene (NBS) were investigated. The data were compared to those for chromosome damage in 10 unaffected control individuals and 48 cancer patients who had not yet received therapeutic treatment. Based on the well-documented radiation sensitivity of AT and NBS patients, it was of particular interest to determine whether the FISH painting technique used in these studies allowed the reliable detection of an increased sensitivity to in vitro irradiation of cells from heterozygous carriers. Peripheral blood lymphocytes and lymphoblastoid cells from both the homozygous AT and NBS patients showed the highest cytogenetic response, whereas the cells from control individuals had a low number of chromosomal aberrations. The response of cells from heterozygous carriers was intermediate and could be clearly differentiated from those of the other groups in double-coded studies. AT and NBS heterozygosity could be distinguished from other genotypes by the total number of breakpoints per cell and also by the number of the long-lived stable aberrations in both AT and NBS. Only AT heterozygosity could be distinguished by the fraction of unstable chromosome changes. The slightly but not significantly increased radiosensitivity that was found in cancer patients was apparently due to a higher trend toward rearrangements compared to the controls. Thus the three-color painting technique presented here proved to be well suited as a supplement to conventional cytogenetic techniques for the detection of heterozygous carriers of these diseases, and may be superior method.