Changes in mRNA levels, protein contents and enzyme activities for brain Cu,Zn- and Mn-SOD by methylmercury chloride (MMC) administration, were examined, over a period of 12 days in ICR male mice. After subcutaneous administration of MMC (10 mg/kg) to mice, brain mercury content reached a maximum at 2 days and remained at that level for at least 5 days. MMC exposure resulted in a time-dependent decrease in the Mn-SOD activity: the enzyme activity at 5 days after exposure to MMC was about 60% of control level whereas this exposure was without effect on the Cu,Zn-SOD activity, indicating differential sensitivity of SOD isozymes to the metal. However, levels of mRNA and protein synthesis for Mn-SOD were unaffected by MMC administration. The direct effect of MMC on the both SOD activities were further examined with purified enzyme preparations. After each SOD isozyme (10 U) was incubated with 0.2 mM MMC for 24 h at pH 7.8, the enzyme activities for Cu,Zn- and Mn-SOD were 90% and 37% of control, respectively. Incubations at a ratio of SOD to MMC (1 : 600) for 24 h resulted in a substantial decrease in the enzyme activity of the Mn form; this isozyme-selective inactivation was noted at alkaline pH. A combination of isoelectric focusing-agarose gel electrophoresis (IEF-AGE) and synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence (SR-XRF) analysis revealed that Mn-SOD rather than Cu,Zn-SOD underwent modification. Furthermore, a decrease in native form of Mn-SOD protein after MMC exposure was confirmed by gel filtration chromatography. These results indicate that Mn-SOD, but not Cu,Zn-SOD, is susceptible to modification by MMC and the resulting alteration in structure appears to cause a loss of enzyme activities.