A recently developed assay for somatic cell mutations was used to study survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. This assay measures the frequency of variant erythrocytes produced by erythroid precursor cells with mutations that result in a loss of gene expression at the polymorphic glycophorin A (GPA) locus. Significant linear relations between variant frequency (VF) and radiation exposure were observed for three different variant cell phenotypes. The spontaneous and induced VFs agree with previous measurements of radiation-induced mutagenesis in other systems; this evidence supports a mutational origin for variant cells characterized by a loss of GPA expression and suggests that the GPA assay system may provide a cumulative dosimeter of past radiation exposures. VFs for some survivors differ dramatically from the calculated dose response, and these deviations appear to result primarily from statistical fluctuations in the number of mutations in the stem-cell pool. These fluctuations allow one to estimate the number of long-lived hemopoietic stem cells in humans.

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