The effect of 60Co gamma radiation on DNA methylation was studied in four cultured cell lines. In all cases a dose-dependent decrease in 5-methylcytosine was observed at 24, 48, and 72 h postexposure to 0.5-10 Gy. Nuclear DNA methyltransferase activity decreased while cytoplasmic activity increased in irradiated (10 Gy) V79A03 cells as compared to controls. No DNA demethylase activity was detected in the nuclei of control or irradiated V79A03 cells. Additionally, gamma radiation resulted in the differentiation of C-1300 N1E-115 cells, a mouse neuroblastoma line, in a dose- and time-dependent manner. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that (1) genes may be turned on following radiation via a mechanism involving hypomethylation of cytosine and (2) radiation-induced hypomethylation results from decreased intranuclear levels of DNA methyltransferase.