Chemotherapeutic agent-induced DNA cleavage gives rise to apoptosis in a subpopulation of SK-N-SH human neuroblastoma cells; the remaining cells undergo Schwann cell-like differentiation. Like other neural crest and primitive neurectodermal tumor-derived cell lines, SK-N-SH cultures contain cells of neural (N-type) and epithelial (substrate-adherent, or S-type) phenotypes. Using isolated N-type and S-type cells from neuroblastoma, medulloblastoma, melanoma and glioma cell lines, we demonstrate that the determinants of the response to DNA cleavage are intrinsic properties of the cell. Furthermore, using a series of analogues of enediyne deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) cleaving agents, we show that the molecular target of these agents is likely to be the same in N- and S-type cells, implying that the difference in response characteristics is a function of different distal pathways that are triggered by DNA cleavage. We demonstrate that the concentration of the DNA damaging agent used, and not the specific characteristics of the damage it produces, is the trigger for production of the cellular response. Response type does not correlate with previously published values for expression of the apoptosis modulators Bcl-2, Bcl-XL, wildtype p53, or, in medulloblastoma lines, p75.