Patients with the autosomal recessive disorder ataxia telangiectasia (A-T) show the biallelic inactivation of the ataxia telangiectasia mutated (ATM) gene. A-T patients exhibit a predisposition to the development of a wide range of lymphoid tumours, suggesting that the ATM protein normally plays an important role in the prevention of both T and B cell malignancies. The ATM protein is a 370 kDa protein kinase implicated in the integration of different cellular responses to particular forms of DNA damage. Several recent studies have reported the possibility that the ATM gene can act as a tumour suppressor gene in non A-T individuals. Frequent ATM inactivation was confirmed in three sporadic lymphoid tumours of mature phenotype: T cell prolymphocytic leukaemia (T-PLL), B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (B-CLL) and mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). Here, we provide a summary of the published ATM mutations in sporadic lymphoid tumours, including our own study on the role of ATM mutations in the pathogenesis of sporadic B-CLL. The published results suggest possible differences in the origin, the nature and distribution of ATM mutations between sporadic B-CLL, MCL and T-PLL. While ATM mutations in mature B cell tumours (B-CLL and MCL) represent a mixture of missense and truncating errors distributed across the whole of the ATM coding sequence, mutations in sporadic T-PLL appear to be predominantly missense, clustering in the region encoding the PI-3 kinase catalytic domain of the protein. The reason for this difference is unclear, but the difference itself supports the notion that the pathogenesis of B and T cell tumours on an ATM deficient background might be different. In addition, in both B-CLL and MCL ATM mutation carriers have been reported, raising the possibility that ATM mutation carriers may have an increased risk of developing these tumours. The existence as well as magnitude of the risk, however, remains to be established. Furthermore, our own studies indicate that the presence of ATM mutations in sporadic B-CLL causes a distinctive defect in response to DNA damaging agents, offering a possible explanation for the poor response of ATM mutant tumours to standard treatment. Therefore, one of the future challenges will be to devise strategies to bypass the existing defect in response to DNA damage and activate apoptosis in ATM mutant sporadic lymphoid tumours.