Seven human and rodent cell lines with markedly differing cellular radiosensitivities were examined by the anti-Br-dUrd antibody and flow cytometric method in order to measure the progression of S phase cells and their accumulation in the G2 phase of the cell cycle after gamma-irradiation. Exponentially growing cells were labelled with 10 microM BrdUrd for 2 h, gamma-irradiated, then washed and cultured at 37 degrees C. At 2-h intervals postirradiation, the cells were harvested and fixed for flow cytometric analysis. Two parameter distributions of BrdUrd content and DNA content were analysed. The time intervals for unirradiated labelled cells to progress from S to G2/M phase were about 450 min for the human squamous cell carcinoma cell lines SCC-12B.2 (D0 = 2.66 Gy), SQ-20B (D0 = 2.39 Gy) and SCC-61 (D0 = 1.07 Gy) as well as for wild-type CHO cells (D0 = 2.62 Gy). After irradiation with 2 Gy, SCC-12B.2, SQ-20B, CHO and human diploid AG1521 cells showed similar small G2/M delays (about 1 h), whereas, a G2/M delay of about 2.2 h occurred in radiosensitive SCC-61 cells and delays of 5.0-7.7 h were observed in two extremely radiosensitive mutant cell strains (human AT homozygote and CHO xrs-5 respectively). When the cells were irradiated with doses yielding similar levels of survival (about 10%), however, the duration of the G2/M delay was generally similar (2-4 h) in all seven cell lines indicating a parallel relationship between radiation-induced G2/M delay and cellular radiosensitivity. These results suggest that the delay time may be related to the level of unrepaired damage present in the cell as it approaches mitosis.