The p53 tumour suppressor gene is activated following cellular exposure to DNA-damaging agents. The functions of wild-type p53 protein include transient blocking of cell cycle progression, direct or indirect stimulation of DNA repair machinery and triggering of apoptosis if DNA repair fails. Therefore, the status of p53 protein may be critically associated with tumour cell radiosensitivity. In the present study we examine the intrinsic radiosensitivity of 20 human carcinoma cell lines derived from 15 patients with different types of head and neck tumour. Radiosensitivities were measured in a 96-well plate clonogenic assay in terms of the mean inactivation dose, surviving fraction at 2 Gy, and constants alpha and beta in the linear quadratic survival curve. The p53 allele status was determined by amplifying exons 4-10 by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), screening for mutations using single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis and determining the exact type and location of a mutation by direct sequencing. The results showed that prevalence of p53 mutations in squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) cell lines is high (80%), and that deletion of one or both wild-type alleles is common (75%). Intrinsic radiosensitivity of the cell lines varied greatly in terms of mean inactivation dose, from 1.4 +/- 0.1 to 2.6 +/- 0.2 Gy. Radiosensitivity correlated well with the p53 allele status so that cell lines carrying a wild-type p53 allele were significantly (P < 0.01) more radioresistant (mean inactivation dose 2.23 +/- 0.15 Gy) than cell lines which lacked a wild-type gene (1.82 +/- 0.24 Gy). Evaluation of our own results and those published in the literature lead us to conclude that absence of the wild-type p53 allele in human head and neck cancer cell lines is associated with increased radiosensitivity. However, the sensitivity is also strongly dependent on the exact type and location of the p53 mutation.