To study the triggering mechanism(s) of the induction of apoptosis following exposure to u.v. light, we used a genetic approach involving cell strains derived from patients with inherited deficiencies in nucleotide excision repair. It was found that cells from patients with Cockayne's syndrome, which are deficient in the processing of u.v.-induced pyrimidine dimers from the transcribed DNA strand, are induced to undergo apoptosis at much lower doses of u.v. light than cells with proficient strand-specific repair. The induction of apoptosis correlated to the induction of p53 and to the inhibition of total RNA and poly(A) mRNA synthesis. We also show that active p53 proteins accumulate following u.v.-irradiation without any apparent requirement for DNA strand breaks or excision repair intermediates. We propose that the blockage of RNA polymerases at DNA lesions in the transcribed strand triggers the induction of a pathway leading to apoptosis. These findings may help explain a long standing enigma of why, despite the DNA repair deficiency, patients with Cockayne's syndrome do not experience an elevated risk for skin cancer since potentially pre-mutagenic cells are eliminated by an easily triggered apoptotic pathway.