6-L-Thiodihydroorotate (TDHO) and 2-oxo-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyrimidine-4,6-dicarboxylate (HDDP) are potent inhibitors of mammalian dihydroorotase in vitro (R. I. Christopherson, K. J. Schmalzl, E. Szabados, R. J. Goodridge, M. C. Harsanyi, M. E. Sant, E. M. Algar, J. E. Anderson, A. Armstrong, S. C. Sharma, W. A. Bubb, and S. D. Lyons, Biochemistry, 28: 463-470, 1989). Using human CCRF-CEM leukemia cells growing in culture, TDHO and HDDP as the free acids have 50% inhibitory concentration (IC50) values of 32 microM and greater than 1000 microM, respectively, whereas for TDHO methyl ester, the IC50 value is 25 microM, and for HDDP dimethyl ester, the IC50 value is 21 microM. These IC50 values were not affected by addition of dihydroorotate, uridine, or deoxycytidine to the culture medium. TDHO methyl ester (25 microM) had only slight inhibitory effects upon the dihydroorotase reaction of de novo pyrimidine biosynthesis in growing leukemia cells, cells arrested in G2 + M phases of the cell cycle. At 250 microM TDHO methyl ester, analysis of cell extracts by high-performance liquid chromatography showed that after 4 h carbamyl aspartate had accumulated from undetectable levels to 760 microM, whereas UTP decreased from 580 to 110 microM and CTP from 350 to 86 microM, indicating inhibition of dihydroorotase in growing leukemia cells. IMP accumulated from 63 to 350 microM, total guanylates increased while adenylates decreased, and the adenylate energy charge decreased from 0.91 to 0.69 after 4 h. The cellular concentration of 5-phosphoribosyl 1-pyrophosphate increased from 180 to 290 microM due to sparing from pyrimidine nucleotide biosynthesis resulting in complementary stimulation of the de novo purine pathway. HDDP dimethyl ester at concentrations of up to 250 microM had no discernable effect upon pyrimidine or purine nucleotide biosynthesis. At 25 microM HDDP-dimethyl ester, cells arrested in G2 + M phases initially, with accumulation of cells in G1/G0 at later times. These data suggest that the primary mechanisms of growth inhibition for TDHO and HDDP involve inhibition of cell cycle progression from late G2 or M phase to G1 phase and that blockade of the pyrimidine pathway by TDHO is a secondary effect found at higher concentrations.