In this report, the types of DNA damage introduced by the ortho-quinone and the semiquinone free radical of 4'-demethylepipodophyllotoxin-9-(4-6-O-ethylidene-beta-D- glucopyranoside) (etoposide) and their relevance for the inactivation of single-stranded (ss) and double-stranded (ds) replicative form (RF) phi X174 DNA have been examined in vitro. The ortho-quinone yielded in both ss and ds DNA only chemical adducts, of which on the average about 1 out of 3 and 1 out of 12 per DNA molecule led to inactivation of ss or RF phi X174 DNA, respectively. The semi-quinone free radical, on the other hand, generated both frank and alkali-labile strand-breaks in ss and in ds DNA which, however, did not contribute significantly to DNA inactivation. The radical introduced, in addition, chemical DNA adducts. Unlike the ortho-quinone adducts, however, each of the semi-quinone adducts was lethal in ss phi X174 DNA, while more than 40 were required for the inactivation of RF DNA. The excision repair system of Escherichia coli did not operate on semi-quinone-modified RF DNA but removed about half of the ortho-quinone adducts [van Maanen JMS, Lafleur MVM, Mans DRA, van den Akker E, de Ruiter C, Koostra PR, Pappie D, de Vries J, Retèl J and Pinedo HM, Biochem Pharmacol 37: 3579-3589, 1988]. When ortho-quinone-modified ss or ds DNA was subjected to a post-alkaline treatment, the adducts remained stably bound to the DNA and the degree of biological inactivation was not influenced. In contrast, post-alkaline treatment removed about 70 and 60% of the semi-quinone adducts from ss and ds DNA, respectively, which, in the case of ss phi X174 DNA, resulted in a partial restoration of the biological activity. It is concluded that the ortho-quinone and the semi-quinone free radical of etoposide produce different types of damage in DNA which have different effects on the biological activity.