Superoxide dismutase reduces injury in many disease processes, implicating superoxide anion radical (O2-.) as a toxic species in vivo. A critical target of superoxide may be nitric oxide (NO.) produced by endothelium, macrophages, neutrophils, and brain synaptosomes. Superoxide and NO. are known to rapidly react to form the stable peroxynitrite anion (ONOO-). We have shown that peroxynitrite has a pKa of 7.49 +/- 0.06 at 37 degrees C and rapidly decomposes once protonated with a half-life of 1.9 sec at pH 7.4. Peroxynitrite decomposition generates a strong oxidant with reactivity similar to hydroxyl radical, as assessed by the oxidation of deoxyribose or dimethyl sulfoxide. Product yields indicative of hydroxyl radical were 5.1 +/- 0.1% and 24.3 +/- 1.0%, respectively, of added peroxynitrite. Product formation was not affected by the metal chelator diethyltriaminepentaacetic acid, suggesting that iron was not required to catalyze oxidation. In contrast, desferrioxamine was a potent, competitive inhibitor of peroxynitrite-initiated oxidation because of a direct reaction between desferrioxamine and peroxynitrite rather than by iron chelation. We propose that superoxide dismutase may protect vascular tissue stimulated to produce superoxide and NO. under pathological conditions by preventing the formation of peroxynitrite.