It has been proposed that the clinical utility of methotrexate (MTX) in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis may be due, in part, to inhibition of 5-amino imidazole-4-carboxamide ribonucleotide formyltransferase (AICARFT) by polyglutamated forms of MTX. AICARFT is the second folate dependent enzyme in de novo purine biosynthesis. In this study, the effects of MTX on de novo purine biosynthesis as well as total nucleotide pools were evaluated in both the human T cell line, CEM, and phytohemagglutinin-activated normal human T lymphocytes. De novo synthesized purines were metabolically labeled with 14C-glycine after MTX treatment and analyzed by HPLC. In normal T cells, MTX produced a dose-dependent reduction in de novo adenosine and guanosine pools with maximal effects (>50%) at 1 microM MTX. In CEM cells, de novo purine synthesis was almost completely blocked by 1 microM MTX. Total purine pools were also reduced in both cell types after MTX treatment. Since 1 microM MTX caused almost complete growth inhibition in CEM cells, we evaluated whether growth could be reconstituted with exogenous purine bases and pyrimidine nucleosides which can be utilized via salvage pathways. The combination of hypoxanthine and thymidine substantially reversed growth inhibition with 1 microM MTX in CEM cells. Taken together, these results demonstrate that MTX inhibits de novo nucleotide synthesis in T cells and suggest that AICARFT inhibition may be one aspect of the multi-site mechanism of MTX action in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.