The submandibular glands of male rats were exposed to 50 Gy X-irradiation as a single dose, with or without pre-treatment with either alpha-adrenergic agonists (noradrenaline, phenylephrine) or a cholinergic antagonist (atropine). The effects were analyzed by morphometric, cytochemical and biophysical methods. When X-irradiated without drug pre-treatment, many serous epithelial cells of the intralobular convoluted ducts displayed morphologic evidence of irreversible radiation damage, in contrast to neighbouring mucous and other cells which were unaffected. The effect was maximal 96 h after irradiation. Serous cells from animals irradiated after pre-treatment with atropine showed much more wide-spread injury than those of animals exposed to X-irradiation only. In contrast , serous cells suffered considerably less damage if their secretory granules had been depleted 1 or 2 h before irradiation with either noradrenaline or phenylephrine. Other epithelial cells showed no modulation of their slight radioresponsiveness by these drugs. The observations were substantiated by morphometry of three cell types: (a) mucous cells, (b) non-granulated serous and intralobular striated duct cells, and (c) granulated serous cells. The findings suggest that the striking radiosensitivity of salivary gland serous epithelial cells is linked to their content of secretory granules. These granules are rich in heavy metals, as demonstrated cytochemically with the sulphide silver method (SSM). Using particle-induced X-ray emission ( PIXE ) spectroscopy, the principal metals were shown to be Zn, Mn and Fe. It is conceivable that membranes which enclose organelles rich in metals with the ability to form redox systems (e.g. Fe2+ in equilibrium Fe3+) show enhanced sensitivity to radiation damage due to the metal-catalyzed induction of lipid peroxidation by ionizing radiation. Disruption of secretory granules would be expected to release lytic enzymes into the cell sap, resulting in autolysis. This hypothesis is supported by the findings that atropine--which increases the number of granulated serous cells--enhances radiosensitivity, while noradrenaline and phenylephrine--which cause degranulation of serous cells--decrease radiosensitivity.