Nijmegen breakage syndrome (NBS) is a rare autosomal recessive disorder. Originally thought to be a variant of ataxia telangiectasia (AT), the cellular phenotype of NBS has been described as almost indistinguishable from that of AT. Since the gene involved in NBS has been cloned and its functions studied, we sought to further characterize its cellular phenotype by examining the response of density-inhibited, confluent cultures of human diploid fibroblasts to irradiation in the G(0)/G(1) phase of the cell cycle. Both NBS and AT cells were markedly sensitive to the cytotoxic effects of radiation. NBS cells, however, were proficient in recovery from potentially lethal damage and exhibited a pronounced radiation-induced G(1)-phase arrest. Irradiated AT cells showed no potentially lethal damage and no G(1)-phase arrest. Both cell types were hypersensitive to the induction of chromosomal aberrations, whereas the distribution of aberrations in irradiated NBS cells was similar to that of normal controls, AT cells showed a high frequency of chromatid-type aberrations. TP53 and CDKN1A (also known as p21(Waf1)) expression was attenuated in irradiated NBS cells, but maximal induction occurred 2 h postirradiation, as was observed in normal controls. The similarities and differences in cellular phenotype between irradiated NBS and AT cells are discussed in terms of the functional properties of the signaling pathways downstream of AT involving the NBS1 and TP53 proteins.