Over the past 15 years, a wealth of information has been published on transcripts and proteins 'induced' (requiring new protein synthesis) in mammalian cells after ionizing radiation (IR) exposure. Many of these studies have also attempted to elucidate the transcription factors that are 'activated' (i.e., not requiring de novo synthesis) in specific cells by IR. Unfortunately, all too often this information has been obtained using supralethal doses of IR, with investigators assuming that induction of these proteins, or activation of corresponding transcription factors, can be 'extrapolated' to low-dose IR exposures. This review focuses on what is known at the molecular level about transcription factors induced at clinically relevant (< or =2 Gy) doses of IR. A review of the literature demonstrates that extrapolation from high doses of IR to low doses of IR is inaccurate for most transcription factors and most IR-inducible transcripts/proteins, and that induction of transactivating proteins at low doses must be empirically derived. The signal transduction pathways stimulated after high versus low doses of IR, which act to transactivate certain transcription factors in the cell, will be discussed. To date, only three transcription factors appear to be responsive (i.e. activated) after physiological doses (doses wherein cells survive or recover) of IR. These are p53, nuclear factor kappa B(NF-kappaB), and the SP1-related retinoblastoma control proteins (RCPs). Clearly, more information on transcription factors and proteins induced in mammalian cells at clinically or environmentally relevant doses of IR is needed to understand the role of these stress responses in cancer susceptibility/resistance and radio-sensitivity/resistance mechanisms.