Mitochondrially-bound dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (EC 126.96.36.199) catalyzes the fourth sequential step in the de novo synthesis of uridine monophosphate. The enzyme has been identified as or surmised to be the pharmacological target for isoxazol, triazine, cinchoninic acid and (naphtho)quinone derivatives, which exerted antiproliferative, immunosuppressive, and antiparasitic effects. Despite this broad spectrum of biological and clinical relevance, there have been no comparative studies on drug-dihydroorotate dehydrogenase interactions. Here, we describe a study of the inhibition of the purified recombinant human and rat dihydroorotate dehydrogenase by ten compounds. 1,4-Naphthoquinone, 5,8-hydroxy-naphthoquinone and the natural compounds juglon, plumbagin and polyporic acid (quinone derivative) were found to function as alternative electron acceptors with 10-30% of control enzyme activity. The human and rat enzyme activity was decreased by 50% by the natural compound lawsone ( > 500 and 49 microM, respectively) and by the derivatives dichloroally-lawsone (67 and 10 nM), lapachol (618 and 61 nM) and atovaquone (15 microM and 698 nM). With respect to the quinone co-substrate of the dihydroorotate dehydrogenase, atovaquone (Kic = 2.7 microM) and dichloroally-lawsone (Kic = 9.8 nM) were shown to be competitive inhibitors of human dihydroorotate dehydrogenase. Atovaquone (Kic = 60 nM) was also acompetitive inhibitor of the rat enzyme. Dichloroally]-lawsone was found to be a time-dependent inhibitor of the rat enzyme, with the lowest inhibition constant (Ki* = 0.77 nM) determined so far for mammalian dihydroorotate dehydrogenases. Another inhibitor, brequinar was previously reported to be a slow-binding inhibitor of the human dihydroorotate dehydrogenase [W. Knecht, M. Loffler, Species-related inhibition of human and rat dihyroorotate dehydrogenase by immunosuppressive isoxazol and cinchoninic acid derivatives, Biochem. Pharmacol. 56 (1998) 1259-1264]. The slow binding features of this potent inhibitor (Ki* = 1.8 nM) with the human enzyme, were verified and seen to be one of the reasons for the narrow therapeutic window (efficacy versus toxicity) reported from clinical trials on its antiproliferative and immunosuppressive action. With respect to the substrate dihydroorotate, atovaquone was an uncompetitive inhibitor of human dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (Kiu = 11.6 microM) and a non-competitive inhibitor of the rat enzyme (Kiu = 905/ Kic = 1,012 nM). 1.5 mM polyporic acid, a natural quinone from fungi, influenced the activity of the human enzyme only slightly; the activity of the rat enzyme was decreased by 30%.