We have investigated the influence of the cellular adaptive response to ionizing radiation on radiation-induced apoptosis in human cells. The adaptive response is believed to be a protective mechanism that confers resistance to the detrimental effects of ionizing radiation and that can be induced by different agents, including hyperthermia and radiation. We have used fluorescence analysis of DNA unwinding (FADU) to assay the induction of apoptosis in human peripheral blood lymphocytes by ionizing radiation. Using the FADU assay, we have observed the initial radiation-induced DNA damage, its subsequent disappearance due to enzymatic repair, and its time- and dose-dependent reappearance. We believe this reappearance of DNA damage to be indicative of the DNA fragmentation event associated with apoptosis. This interpretation has been supported at the individual cell level using an in situ terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TDT) assay (Apoptag, Oncor Inc.), which detects the 3′-hydroxyl ends of fragmented DNA, and by fluorescence analysis of nuclear morphology in Hoechst 33258 stained cells. Pretreatment of cells with low-dose γ-radiation (0.1 Gy) or mild hyperthermia (40 °C for 30 min) altered the extent of radiation-induced (3 Gy) apoptosis. Both pretreatments sensitized lymphocytes to become apoptotic after the 3-Gy radiation exposure. This sensitization may represent an adaptive response mechanism that reduces the risk that genetically damaged cells will proliferate. The ability to modify the probability of radiation-induced apoptosis may lower the cancer risk from a radiation exposure.Key words: apoptosis, adaptive response, ionizing radiation, hyperthermia.