Gallium, a pharmacologically important metal which resembles iron, was shown in previous studies to inhibit ribonucleotide reductase. To better understand its mechanism of action, we have examined the interaction of gallium with the iron-dependent M2 subunit of ribonucleotide reductase. In its active form, M2 contains an iron center and a tyrosyl free radical which is detectable by ESR spectroscopy. In the present study, cytoplasmic extracts prepared from murine leukemic L1210 cells after an 18-hr incubation with 960 microM gallium nitrate displayed a > 60% inhibition in their M2 tyrosyl radical ESR signal. However, this signal was restored within 15 min to levels greater than that of controls by the addition of increasing concentrations of ferrous ammonium sulfate. Gallium citrate added directly to cytoplasmic extracts from control cells also decreased the tyrosyl radical signal, an effect which could be reversed by iron. Immunoblot analysis revealed that incubation with gallium did not diminish the amount of M2 protein in cells, thus indicating that the decrease in the tyrosyl radical signal was not due to a decrease in cellular M2 content. In immunoprecipitation studies of 59Fe-labeled M2, gallium displaced 55-60% of the 59Fe incorporated into M2. Our studies suggest that gallium displaces iron from the M2 subunit of ribonucleotide reductase, resulting in a loss of the tyrosyl radical and an accumulation of inactive M2 within the cell.