We have compared the sensitivity of clonogenic interleukin 7 (IL-7)-dependent murine B cell precursors with that of clonogenic mature B cells and myeloid precursors to alpha-particles from plutonium-238 and X radiation. All three populations are relatively sensitive, but B cell precursors are ultrasensitive. This differential sensitivity is also observed with corticosteroid, etoposide, and cisplatin, all apoptosis-inducing drugs used in the treatment of leukemia and other cancers. Further, we show that x-rays and drugs induce the bulk of the B cell precursor population to undergo rapid apoptosis, despite the continued presence of IL-7. B cell precursors were found to express very low levels of BCL-2 protein compared with mature splenic B cells and their resistance to x-rays and corticosteroid could be enhanced by expression of a BCL-2 transgene. These data have important implications for normal lymphopoiesis and for the behavior of leukemic lymphoid precursor cells.