Peroxynitrite anion (ONOO-) is a potent oxidant that mediates oxidation of both nonprotein and protein sulfhydryls. Endothelial cells, macrophages, and neutrophils can generate superoxide as well as nitric oxide, leading to the production of peroxynitrite anion in vivo. Apparent second order rate constants were 5,900 M-1.s-1 and 2,600-2,800 M-1.s-1 for the reaction of peroxynitrite anion with free cysteine and the single thiol of albumin, respectively, at pH 7.4 and 37 degrees C. These rate constants are 3 orders of magnitude greater than the corresponding rate constants for the reaction of hydrogen peroxide with sulfhydryls at pH 7.4. Unlike hydrogen peroxide, which oxidizes thiolate anion, peroxynitrite anion reacts preferentially with the undissociated form of the thiol group. Peroxynitrite oxidizes cysteine to cystine and the bovine serum albumin thiol group to an arsenite nonreducible product, suggesting oxidation beyond sulfenic acid. Peroxynitrous acid was a less effective thiol-oxidizing agent than its anion, with oxidation presumably mediated by the decomposition products, hydroxyl radical and nitrogen dioxide. The reactive peroxynitrite anion may exert cytotoxic effects in part by oxidizing tissue sulfhydryls.