Reactive oxygen intermediates (ROIs) have been found to be the messengers in the activation of the kappa B transcription regulator in mitogen- or cytokine-stimulated cells, operating in conjunction with or independently of various other mechanisms; these include Ca(++)-dependent and PKC-dependent cytoplasmic signaling pathways. We have recently reported that low-dose ionizing radiation induces NF-kappa B in human lymphoblastoid 244B cells. Since ionizing radiation generates free radicals in cells, we have investigated whether the ROIs generated by ionizing radiation induce NF-kappa B activity, and also whether they do so by a similar mechanism as in cells treated with PMA or H2O2. The results not only confirm a previous observation from our laboratory that low-dose ionizing radiation (0.1-2.0 Gy) activates kappa B transcription factor transiently with a maximal induction at 0.5 Gy exposure, but also demonstrate mechanistically that the activation of NF-kappa B by low-dose ionizing radiation can be inhibited considerably by the antioxidant N-acetyl-L-cysteine, indicating that at least the major part of the activation process is mediated by ROIs. These findings support the idea that ROIs can regulate the kappa B elements which in turn can serve as response elements for oxidant stress.