Model 3'-azido-3'-deoxynucleosides with thiol or vicinal dithiol substituents at C2' or C5' were synthesized to study reactions postulated to occur during inhibition of ribonucleotide reductases by 2'-azido-2'-deoxynucleotides. Esterification of 5'-(tert-butyldiphenylsilyl)-3'-azido-3'-deoxyadenosine and 3'-azido-3'-deoxythymidine (AZT) with 2,3-S-isopropylidene-2,3-dimercaptopropanoic acid or N-Boc-S-trityl-L-cysteine and deprotection gave 3'-azido-3'-deoxy-2'-O-(2,3-dimercaptopropanoyl or cysteinyl)adenosine and the 3'-azido-3'-deoxy-5'-O-(2,3-dimercaptopropanoyl or cysteinyl)thymidine analogs. Density functional calculations predicted that intramolecular reactions between generated thiyl radicals and an azido group on such model compounds would be exothermic by 33.6-41.2 kcal/mol and have low energy barriers of 10.4-13.5 kcal/mol. Reduction of the azido group occurred to give 3'-amino-3'-deoxythymidine, which was postulated to occur with thiyl radicals generated by treatment of 3'-azido-3'-deoxy-5'-O-(2,3-dimercaptopropanoyl)thymidine with 2,2'-azobis-(2-methyl-2-propionamidine) dihydrochloride. Gamma radiolysis of N(2)O-saturated aqueous solutions of AZT and cysteine produced 3'-amino-3'-deoxythymidine and thymine most likely by both radical and ionic processes.