Cockayne syndrome (CS) and xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), autosomal recessive diseases with clinical and cellular hypersensitivity to UV radiation, differ in ability to repair UV DNA photoproducts in their overall genome: normal repair in CS, defective repair in XP. In order to characterize a DNA repair defect in an active gene in CS, we measured the capacity of cells from patients with CS and XP to reactivate 2 major types of UV-induced DNA damage, photoreactivatable (i.e., cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers) and non-photoreactivatable (primarily pyrimidine-(6-4)pyrimidone photoproducts), in the actively transcribing chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (cat) gene of the plasmid expression vector pRSV-cat. Epstein-Barr virus-transformed lymphoblast lines from 4 normal persons and from 3 patients with CS and from two with XP were transiently transfected with the plasmid, and the cat activity in cell extracts was determined. When the cells were transfected with UV-irradiated plasmid, expression was abnormally decreased in both the CS and XP cells. When the cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers in the UV-irradiated plasmid were removed by photoreactivation prior to transfection, cat expression in the CS, but not in the XP, lines reached normal levels. These data imply that both the XP and CS cells are unable to repair normally the cyclobutane pyrimidine dimer photoproducts which block transcription of cat. However, the CS, but not XP, cells can repair normally the other UV-induced photoproducts which block transcription. The ability of CS, but not XP, cells to repair these non-dimer photoproducts indicates that the active gene repair mechanism treats the cyclobutane pyrimidine dimer differently from the non-dimer photoproducts.