We compared the DNA damaging potency of acrylamide (AA) and its metabolite glycidamide (GA) in the comet assay in cell systems differing with respect to species origin and cytochrome P450-depended monooxygenase (CYP2E1) expression (V79, Caco-2, primary rat hepatocytes). Only after 24 h incubation in the highest concentration of AA (6 mM) a slight but significant increase in DNA damage was observed in V79 and Caco-2 cells. In primary rat hepatocytes, however, expressing substantial amounts of CYP2E1, no induction of DNA strand breaks was found. At the end of the incubation time period (24 h), still 67+/-19% of the CYP2E1 protein was detected by Western blotting. Direct treatment with GA resulted in a significant increase in DNA damage in V79 cells and primary rat hepatocytes at concentrations > or =100 microM (24 h). Caco-2 cells were found to be less sensitive, exhibiting an increase in DNA strand breaks at concentrations > or 300 microM GA. These data confirm the higher genotoxic potential of GA compared to AA but also indicate that high expression of CYP2E1 per se is not necessarily associated with increased genotoxicity of AA. We, therefore, investigated whether the intracellular glutathione (GSH) level might be a critical determinant for the genotoxicity of AA in cells with different CYP2E1 status. Depletion of intracellular GSH by dl-buthionine-[S,R]-sulfoxime (BSO) in rat hepatocytes and V79 cells resulted in a significant induction of DNA strand breaks after incubation with 1 mM AA. However, at higher concentrations (> or =1.25 mM) a strong increase in cytotoxicity, resulting in a severe loss of viability, was observed. In summary, the DNA strand breaking effect of AA appeared not to be directly correlated with the CYP2E1 status of the cells. Depletion of GSH is associated with an increase in AA genotoxicity but seems also to lead to a substantial enhancement of cytotoxicity.