Murine bone marrow chimera models were used to assess the efficacy of host total body irradiation (TBI) given at different doses, dose rates, and fractionation schemes in providing for engraftment of syngeneic and allogeneic bone marrow. B6-Hbbd congenic and LP mice, respectively, were used as donors (10(7) bone marrow cells) for syngeneic and allogenic (H-2 compatible) transplantation in standard B6 recipients. Stable marrow chimerism was determined from host and donor stem cell- derived hemoglobin phenotypes (Hbbs and Hbbd) on gel electrophoresis at 3 months posttransplant. Partial engraftment of syngeneic marrow was seen at single doses as low as 2 Gy, with the donor component increasing steadily with increasing TBI dose to a level of 100% at 7 Gy. Immunologic resistance of the host appeared to prevent allogeneic engraftment until 5.5 Gy. A very steep radiation dose response was then observed so that the level of chimerism with 6 Gy and above became comparable with syngeneic engraftment. Low dose rate (5 cGy minute-1) and fractionated TBI required higher total doses for equivalent engraftment (radiation dose-sparing) in both syngeneic and allogenic bone marrow transplantation. This displacement in the dose-response curve on fractionation was seen with interfraction intervals of 3 and 6 hours. A further dose-sparing effect was observed on extending the interval to 18 and 24 hours, but only for allogeneic transplantation, and may therefore be related to recovery of immune-mediated graft resistance. The involvement of multiple target cell populations in determining allogenic engraftment rendered the application of the linear-quadratic model for radiation cell survival problematic in this case. The recovery in dose when low dose rate and 6-hour interfraction intervals were applied in either syngeneic or allogeneic BMT is consistent with appreciable sub-lethal damage repair in the primitive self-renewing stem cell population of the host marrow. These results contrast with the poor repair capacity of the 11-day spleen colony- forming units (CFUs) population after fractionated irradiation and support the notion that ablation of early stem cells in the pre-CFUs compartment is essential for long-term marrow engraftment.