We have previously demonstrated that cells from patients with ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T) fail to show initial delay at several cell cycle checkpoints post-irradiation. In addition a defect in the induction of p53 by ionizing radiation was evident. We demonstrate here that the radiation signal transduction pathway operating through p53, its target gene WAF1, cyclin-dependent kinases and the retinoblastoma (Rb) protein is defective in A-T cells. The defective p53 induction after ionizing radiation, observed previously in A-T cells, was also reflected at the functional level using p53-DNA binding activity, transactivation and transfection with wild type p53. Correction of the defect at the G1/S checkpoint was observed when wild type p53 was constitutively expressed in A-T cells. Exposure of control cells to radiation gave rise to p53 induction and as a consequence increased expression of WAF1 mRNA and protein, but A-T cells were defective in this response. As expected the WAF1 response in irradiated control cells resulted in an inhibition of cyclin-dependent kinase activity including cyclin E-cdk2, which plays an important role in the transition from G1 to S phase. No inhibition of cyclin-dependent kinase activity was observed in A-T cells correlating with the delayed WAF1 response. On the contrary an enhancement of cyclin-dependent kinase activity was seen in A-T cells post-irradiation. An accumulation of the hypophosphorylated form of Rb protein occurred in irradiated control cells compatible with the G1/S phase delay observed in these cells after exposure to radiation. In unirradiated A-T cells the amount of Rb protein was much higher compared to controls and it was mainly in the hyperphosphorylated (functionally inactive) form. In addition, accumulation of the hypophosphorylated form of Rb in A-T cells post-irradiation was defective, consistent with the lack of cell cycle arrest. Thus the failure of the G1/S checkpoint in A-T cells after exposure to ionizing radiation is consistent with a defective radiation signal transduction pathway operating through p53.