Exposure of cells to ionizing radiation causes phosphorylation of histone H2AX at sites flanking DNA double-strand breaks. Detection of phosphorylated H2AX (gammaH2AX) by antibody binding has been used as a method to identify double-strand breaks. Although generally performed by observing microscopic foci within cells, flow cytometry offers the advantage of measuring changes in gammaH2AX intensity in relation to cell cycle position. The importance of cell cycle position on the levels of endogenous and radiation-induced gammaH2AX was examined in cell lines that varied in DNA content, cell cycle distribution, and kinase activity. Bivariate analysis of gammaH2AX expression relative to DNA content and synchronization by centrifugal elutriation were used to measure cell cycle-specific expression of gammaH2AX. With the exception of xrs5 cells, gammaH2AX level was approximately 3 times lower in unirradiated G(1)-phase cells than S- and G(2)-phase cells, and the slope of the G(1)-phase dose-response curve was 2.8 times larger than the slope for S-phase cells. Cell cycle differences were confirmed using immunoblotting, indicating that reduced antibody accessibility in intact cells was not responsible for the reduced antibody binding in G(1)-phase cells. Early apoptotic cells could be easily identified on flow histograms as a population with 5-10-fold higher levels of gammaH2AX, although high expression was not maintained in apoptotic cells by 24 h. We conclude that expression of gammaH2AX is associated with DNA replication in unirradiated cells and that this reduces the sensitivity for detecting radiation-induced double-strand breaks in S- and G(2)-phase cells.