5-Bromouridine (BrUrd) and several analogues of this antimetabolite exhibit antiviral activity and are potent inhibitors of the human immunodeficiency virus. The antitumour activity of BrUrd, however, in comparison with 5-fluorouridine or 5-fluorouracil, is less pronounced. Because BrUrd is incorporated into RNA and can be detected immunocytochemically and analysed by cytometry, it may prove useful as an RNA precursor to assay cell transcriptional activity. The aim of the present study was to evaluate the cell cycle effects of BrUrd incorporation in human lymphocytic leukaemic MOLT-4 and HL-60 cells and mitogenically stimulated normal peripheral blood lymphocytes. BrUrd suppressed cell proliferation and induced cell death; when measured after 72 h of treatment, the LD50 was 10 and 20 microM for HL-60 and MOLT-4, respectively, and LD90 was 100 microM, for both cell lines. BrUrd was maximally incorporated by the cells progressing through S phase of the cycle and the S phase cells were most severely perturbed by the drug, which was detected in RNA but not in DNA. Suppression of the S phase traverse of MOLT-4, HL-60 and normal lymphocytes was seen at > or = 30 microM BrUrd concentration. Also sensitive was the cell traverse through G2+M which, in the case of lymphocytes, HL-60 and MOLT-4 cells, was perturbed at > or = 30, > or = 200 and 500 microM BrUrd concentrations, respectively. Transition of lymphocytes from G0 to G1 was little affected at < 100 microM, and, although suppressed, was still observed even at 500 microM BrUrd concentration. Apoptosis of HL-60 cells and lymphocytes was observed at > or = 50 microM BrUrd after 24 h of incubation; death of MOLT-4 cells had mixed features of apoptosis and necrosis and resembled the 'mitotic' or 'reproductive cell death' as described in other cell systems. The cytostatic and cytotoxic effects of BrUrd should be taken into consideration when using this antimetabolite as an antiviral agent in the clinic or as an RNA precursor in assays of cell transcriptional activity.