We have studied the intrinsic radiosensitivity, repair of potentially lethal damage (PLD) and the repair rate of radiation-induced DNA double-strand breaks (DSB) in 11 non-transformed human fibroblast cell lines, four of which were homozygous for the A-T mutation and two that were heterozygous (A-TH). All the experiments were done on cells in plateau phase of growth (97-99% of cells in G0/G1). With a dose of 30 Gy delivered at 4 degrees C, the A-T cell lines had faster repair rates of up to 6 h, after which the repair curve crossed that of the control so that the residual damage at 24 h was higher in the A-T cells. Irradiation at 37 degrees C at low dose rate 1 cGy.min-1) produced even more marked differences between the A-T cells and controls: the residual DSB level was always higher in A-T cells than controls at doses of 5-40 Gy, due to defective repair of a small fraction of DSB in A-T cells. The two protocols showed DSB repair rates for the A-TH cell lines that were intermediate between those of the A-T and control cells. There was a quantitative relationship between the residual DSB after irradiation at 37 degrees C and the intrinsic radiosensitivity, and with the extent of PLD repair. There were very few apoptotic cells in the non-transformed control and A-T cell line, both before and after irradiation. In combination, these result support the contention that the defective repair of DSB is a mechanism of the hypersensitivity linked to the A-T mutation.