We have found that F9 murine teratocarcinoma cells undergo morphological changes and internucleosomal DNA fragmentation characteristic of apoptosis after exposure to ionizing radiation. We studied the time course, radiation dose-response, and the effects of protein and RNA synthesis inhibitors on this process. The response is dose dependent in the range 2-12 Gy. Internucleosomal DNA fragmentation can be detected as early as 6 h postirradiation and is maximal by 48 h. Cycloheximide, a protein synthesis inhibitor, and 5,6-dichloro-1-beta-D-ribofuranosylbenzimidazole, an RNA synthesis inhibitor, both induced internucleosomal DNA fragmentation in the unirradiated cells and enhanced radiation-induced DNA fragmentation. F9 cells can be induced to differentiate into cells resembling endoderm with retinoic acid. After irradiation, differentiated F9 cells exhibit less DNA fragmentation than stem cells. This indicates that ionizing radiation can induce apoptosis in non-lymphoid tumours. We suggest that embryonic tumour cells may be particularly susceptible to agents that induce apoptosis.