Cellular responses to DNA damage are crucial for maintaining homeostasis and preventing the development of cancer. Our understanding of the DNA-damage response has evolved: whereas previously the focus was on DNA repair, we now appreciate that the response to DNA lesions involves a complex, highly branched signaling network. Defects in this response lead to severely debilitating, cancer-predisposing 'genomic instability syndromes'. Double strand breaks (DSBs) in DNA are potent triggers of the DNA-damage response, which is why they are used to study this pathway. The chief transducer of the DSB signal is the nuclear protein kinase ataxia-telangiectasia mutated (ATM). Genetic, biochemical and structural studies have recently provided insights into the ATM-mediated DSB response, reshaping our view of this signaling pathway while raising new questions.