The recent development of several promising new thiourea-containing drugs has renewed interest in the thiourea functionality as a potential toxicophore. Most adverse reactions of thiourea-containing compounds are attributed to the thionocarbonyl moiety. Oxidation of these thionocarbonyl compounds by flavin-containing monooxygenases (FMO) and cytochrome P450 isoenzymes (P450) to reactive sulfenic, sulfinic, or sulfonic acids leads to alkylation of essential macromolecules. To more rationally design thiourea-containing drugs, structure-toxicity relationships (STRs) must be derived. Since for the development of STRs a large number of thiourea-containing compounds must be investigated, it is important to develop rapid in vitro assays for alkylating potential. In this study, the utility of activation of microsomal glutathione S-transferase (mGST) and inactivation of P450 1A1 as markers of the alkylating potential of metabolites of thiourea-containing compounds was investigated. It was found that metabolites of thiourea-containing compounds inactivate P450 1A1 in a time-dependent manner, as evidenced by a decrease in 7-ethoxyresorufin O-dealkylation (EROD) activity. An extent of inactivation of P450 1A1 by 100 microM N-phenylthiourea (PTU) of 64% was found after 10 min. This inactivation was dependent on the presence of NADPH and the presence of the thionosulfur, since the carbonyl analogue of PTU was not found to inactivate P450 1A1, and was partially prevented by heat treatment of the microsomes which is known to selectively inactivate FMO enzymes. Inactivation of P450 1A1 could be reversed by treatment with dithiothreitol, indicating the formation of disulfide bonds. However, thiourea-containing compounds also inhibited the EROD activity of P450 1A1 in a competitive manner. This property complicates the usefulness of the EROD activity of P450 1A1 as a marker for the alkylating potential of thiourea-containing compounds. It was found that metabolites of thiourea-containing compounds could transiently activate the mGST. A maximal level of activation by 100 microM PTU of 162+/-16% was found after 10 min. Activation of mGST by 100 microM PTU was dependent on the presence of NADPH and the presence of the thionosulfur, since the carbonyl analogue of PTU was not found to activate mGST. Activation was completely prevented by heat treatment of the microsomes, indicating involvement of FMO in the bioactivation process. Finally, a series of structurally diverse thiourea-containing compounds were tested for their ability to activate mGST. It appeared that their potency in alkylating mGST was inversely related to their Vmax/Km value for the FMO enzyme. From this study, it is concluded that, whereas activation of mGST in rat liver microsomes may be a useful system with which to investigate the relationship between structure and alkylating potential of thiourea-containing compounds in vitro, inactivation of P450 1A1 is not.