The influence of chromatin structure on induction of DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) by X radiation was studied in DNA from CHO cells. Whole cells, nuclei with condensed or relaxed chromatin, and deproteinized DNA in agarose plugs were irradiated and DSB formation was measured as a decrease in the length of DNA by nondenaturing, pulsed-field, agarose gel electrophoresis. The yield of DSBs in deproteinized DNA (2.3 x 10(-10) DSBs Da-1 Gy-1) was observed to be 70 times greater than the yield of DSBs (3.1 x 10(-12) DSBs Da-1 Gy-1) observed in DNA in the intact cell nucleus. Organization of DNA into the basic nucleosome repeat structure and condensation of the chromatin fiber into higher-order structure protected DNA from DSB induction by factors of 8.3 and 4.5, respectively. An additional twofold protection of DNA in fully condensed chromatin occurred in the intact cell nucleus. Since this protection did not appear to involve chromatin structure, we speculate that this additional protection may result from the association of soluble protein and nonprotein sulfhydryls with DNA in the intact cell nucleus. The results are consistent with the organization of nuclear DNA into both basic nucleosome repeat structure and higher-order chromatin structure providing significant protection against DSB induction.