It has been reported that the p53 gene mediates an ionizing radiation-induced G1 arrest in mammalian cells. To further characterize this important phenomenon, a panel of seven human diploid fibroblast cell strains and 14 human tumor cell lines from a variety of sources with both wild-type and mutant p53 status were assayed for their susceptibility to G1 arrest after gamma-ray irradiation by a continuous labeling [3H]thymidine incorporation technique. An irreversible G1-block involving 20-70% of the cell population was observed in diploid fibroblasts irradiated with 4 Gy. The block was abolished by transfection with the Human Papilloma Virus E6 gene and in an ataxia telangiectasia (AT) cell line, indicating a role for the AT and p53 genes respectively in this process. In contrast to wild-type normal fibroblast cell strains, the G1-block in all tumor cell lines was significantly reduced, irrespective of their p53 status. None of the nine human tumor cell lines with mutant p53 genes showed a significant G1-block following irradiation with 4 Gy. Among the five tumor cell lines expressing wild-type p53, two showed no apparent G1-block. The remaining three showed a G1-block involving only 8-15% of the cell population, a block much smaller in magnitude than that seen in diploid fibroblasts. Finally, a diploid fibroblast cell strain and a tumor cell line, both showing a normal p53 and p21/WAF1 expression pattern, were examined for pRb phosphorylation before and after irradiation. The diploid fibroblast cell strain showed a significant G1-arrest and a clear inhibition of pRb phosphorylation by irradiation whereas the tumor cells showed no G1-arrest and no inhibition of pRb phosphorylation. These results suggest that (1) multiple genetic factors may modulate the occurrence and magnitude of the G1-arrest induced by exposure to ionizing radiation, (2) the capacity for p53 to mediate a radiation-induced G1 arrest is significantly reduced in tumor cells, (3) the disruption of G1-block modulating factor(s) other than p53 may be an important step in carcinogenesis.