The antiviral distamycin A and its phenyl mustard derivative FCE24517 possessing antitumor activity were tested for their ability to inhibit macromolecular synthesis in three human and one murine cell line. While distamycin A was poorly active in these systems, FCE24517 inhibited DNA synthesis efficiently, RNA synthesis to a lower extent and had little effect on protein synthesis. These findings suggest that the in vivo activity of FCE24517 derives from the specific inhibition of DNA synthesis. When the two drugs were tested on several enzymes involved in human DNA metabolism a strikingly similar pattern of inhibition appeared, with distamycin A being the more potent. Both drugs showed: A), no inhibitory activity against thymidine kinase and DNA primase; B), low activity against DNA topoisomerases I and II and the 3'-5' exonuclease associated with the DNA polymerase epsilon; C), high activity against DNA polymerases alpha and epsilon, uracil-DNA glycosylase and the joining activity of the replicative DNA ligase; D), the highest inhibitory activity against the AMP-dependent DNA relaxing activity of DNA ligase. The strong in vitro inhibition of several DNA enzymatic activities, including DNA ligase, do not match with the in vivo activities of the two drugs. However a unique difference was observed: only FCE24517 inhibited the DNA-independent reaction of adenylation of human DNA ligase while the adenylation reaction of T4 and E. coli DNA ligase was unaffected by either drug. It is still unclear whether these properties are relevant for modulating the killing activity of FCE24517 against proliferating cells both in culture and in vivo. Nevertheless FCE24517 is the first known molecule capable of interacting directly and specifically with human DNA ligase.