N'-Nitrosonornicotine (NNN) is one of the most important strong carcinogens in tobacco products and is believed to play a significant role in the induction of esophageal cancer in smokers and oral cavity cancer in snuff dippers. NNN is metabolically activated through cytochrome P450-catalyzed alpha-hydroxylation. 2'-Hydroxylation produces a reactive intermediate 4-(3-pyridyl)-4-oxobutanediazohydroxide (7), which alkylates DNA to form pyridyloxobutyl (POB)-DNA adducts. DNA pyridyloxobutylation from NNN treatment, as measured by released 4-hydroxy-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (HPB, 8), has been observed in vitro and in vivo. In the present study, we have used liquid chromatography-electrospray ionization-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-ESI-MS/MS) to analyze specific POB-DNA adducts in the nasal olfactory, nasal respiratory, and oral mucosa of F344 rats treated chronically with (R)-NNN or (S)-NNN in the drinking water (10 ppm, 1-20 weeks). Adduct levels in the nasal respiratory mucosa exceeded those in the nasal olfactory and oral mucosa. (R)-NNN treatment generated 2-4 times more adducts in the nasal olfactory and respiratory mucosa than did (S)-NNN at most time points. O(2)-[4-(3-Pyridyl)-4-oxobut-1-yl]thymidine (O(2)-POB-dThd, 11) predominated in the nasal olfactory and respiratory mucosa, followed by 7-[4-(3-pyridyl)-4-oxobut-1-yl]guanine (7-POB-Gua, 14). Levels of O(2)-[4-(3-pyridyl)-4-oxobut-1-yl]cytosine (O(2)-POB-Cyt, 13) and O(6)-[4-(3-pyridyl)-4-oxobut-1-yl]-2'-deoxyguanosine (O(6)-POB-dGuo, 12) were significantly lower. In the oral mucosa, the opposite stereoselectivity was observed, with (S)-NNN treatment producing 3-5 times more POB-DNA adducts than did (R)-NNN. O(2)-POB-dThd and 7-POB-dGuo were the two major adducts, and their levels were similar. Overall, POB-DNA adduct formation in the nasal olfactory and nasal respiratory mucosa was similar to that previously observed in the lung, whereas in the oral mucosa, the trend resembled that in the esophagus. These results indicate that different mechanisms are involved in NNN metabolism and tumorigenesis in rat nasal and oral tissues. NNN enters the nasal mucosa through the circulation, and tissue-specific metabolism is important, while in the oral mucosa, direct exposure and local activation both play significant roles. Our results also support the potential importance of NNN as an oral carcinogen in people who use smokeless tobacco products.