Iron catalyzes the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) through the Fenton reaction. The modification of this phenomenon in the presence of various thiol compounds that are nominally reducing agents has been studied. Using the synaptosomal/mitochondrial (P2) fraction of rat cerebral cortex as a biological source of reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, we studied the influence of four compounds, glutathione (GSH), cysteine, N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), and homocysteine on iron-induced ROS production. None of the thiol compounds alone, at the concentrations used, affected the basal rate of ROS production in the P2 fraction. GSH, homocysteine and NAC did not alter Fe-induced ROS generation, while cysteine greatly potentiated ROS formation. Measurement of the rate of ROS production in the presence of varying concentrations of cysteine together with 20 microM ferrous iron revealed a dose-response relationship. The mechanism whereby free cysteine, but not the cysteine-containing peptide GSH, homocysteine or NAC with a blocked amino group, exacerbates the pro-oxidant properties of ferrous iron probably involves formation of a complex between iron, a sulfhydryl and a free carboxyl residue located at a critical distance from the -SH group. Cysteine-iron interactions may, in part, account for the excessive toxicity of free cysteine in contrast to GSH and NAC.