The signaling pathway through which ionizing radiation induces NF-kappaB activation is not fully understood. IkappaB-alpha, an inhibitory protein of NF-kappaB mediates the activation of NF-kappaB in response to various stimuli, including cytokines, mitogens, oxidants and other stresses. We have now identified an ionizing radiation-induced signaling pathway that is independent of TNF-alpha. IkappaB-alpha degradation is rapid in response to TNF-alpha induction, but it is absent in response to ionizing radiation exposure in cells from individuals with ataxia-telangiectasia (AT). Overexpression of wild-type ATM, the product of the gene defective in AT patients, restores radiation-induced degradation of IkappaB-alpha. Furthermore, phosphorylation of IkappaB-alpha by immunoprecipitated ATM kinase is increased in control fibroblasts and transfected AT cells following ionizing radiation exposure. These data provide support for a novel ionizing radiation-induced signaling pathway for activation of NF-kappaB and a molecular basis for the sensitivity of AT patients to oxidative stresses.