Gene mutations provide valuable clues to cellular metabolism. In humans such insights come mainly from genetic disorders. Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T) and Nijmegen breakage syndrome (NBS) are two distinct but closely related, single gene disorders that highlight a complex junction of several signal transduction pathways. These pathways appear to control defense mechanisms against specific types of damage to cellular macromolecules, and probably regulate the processing of certain types of DNA damage or normal intermediates of DNA metabolism. A-T is characterized primarily by cerebellar degeneration, immunodeficiency, genome instability, clinical radiosensitivity, and cancer predisposition. NBS shares all these features except cerebellar deterioration. The cellular phenotypes of A-T and NBS are almost indistinguishable, however, and include chromosomal instability, radiosensitivity, and defects in cell cycle checkpoints normally induced by ionizing radiation. The recent identification of the gene responsible for A-T, ATM, has revealed its product to be a large, constitutively expressed phosphoprotein with a carboxy-terminal region similar to the catalytic domain of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinases (PI 3-kinases). ATM is a member of a family of proteins identified in various organisms, which share the PI 3-kinase domain and are involved in regulation of cell cycle progression and response to genotoxic agents. Some of these proteins, most notably the DNA-dependent protein kinase, have an associated protein kinase activity, and preliminary data indicate this activity in ATM as well. Mutations in A-T patients are null alleles that truncate or destabilize the ATM protein. Atm-deficient mice recapitulate the human phenotype with slower nervous-system degeneration. Two ATM interactors, c-Abl and p53, underscore its role in cellular responses to genotoxic stress. The complexity of ATM's structure and mode of action make it a paradigm of multifaceted signal transduction proteins involved in many physiological pathways via multiple protein-protein interactions. The as yet unknown NBS protein may be a component in an ATM-based complex, with a key role in sensing and processing specific DNA damage or intermediates and signaling their presence to the cell cycle machinery.