The antitumor agent BCNU (1,3-bis(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea) was incubated with poly(C) and poly(G) in aqueous solution at 37 degrees and pH 7 to produce approximately 0.33 and 0.07% substitution, respectively. Under the same conditions, there was relatively little reaction with poly(A) and poly(U). Poylnucleotides reacted with [14C]BCNU were digested by chemical and enzymatic methods, and the derivative nucleotides were isolated by column chromatography. There were identified by a combination of ultraviolet and mass spectroscopy as 3-(beta-hydroxyethyl)CMP, 3,N4-ethano-CMP, and 7-(beta-hydroxy-ethyl)GMP. This would indicate that BCNU generates active two carbon fragments, probably chloroethyl carbonium ions, which are free to react with nucleotides. The production of these substituted bases may be important to the mechanism of action of the therapeutic nitrosoureas since they would probably alter the function of any nucleic acid which contained them.