The molecular mechanism(s) by which tumor cells survive after exposure to ionizing radiation are understood. Exposure of A431 cells to low radiation (1 Gy) caused prolonged activations of the mitogen activated protein (MAP) kinase and stress activated protein (SAP) kinase pathways, and induced p21(Cip-1/WAF1) via a MAP kinase dependent mechanism. In contrast, higher doses of radiation (6 Gy) caused a much weaker activation of the MAP kinase cascade, but a similar degree of SAP kinase cascade activation. In the presence of MAP kinase blockade by the specific MEK1 inhibitor (PD98059) the basal activity of the SAP kinase pathway was enhanced twofold, and the ability of a 1 Gy radiation exposure to activate the SAP kinase pathway was increased ~sixfold 60 min after irradiation. In the presence of MAP kinase blockade by PD98059 the ability of a single 1 Gy exposure to cause double stranded DNA breaks (TUNEL assay) was enhanced at least threefold over the following 24-48 h. The increase in DNA damage within 48 h was also mirrored by a similar decrease in A431 cell growth as judged by MTT assays over the nest 4-8 days following radiation exposure. This report demonstrates that the MAP kinase cascade is a key cytoprotective pathway in A431 human squamous carcinoma cells which is activated in response to clinically used doses of ionizng radiation. Inhibition of this pathway potentiates the ability of low dose radiation exposure to induce cell death in vitro.