Radiolabeled fluoromisonidazole (FMISO) is being investigated as an imaging agent for hypoxia in tumors and nonmalignant tissues in myocardial infarct or stroke. In this study in vitro cell cultures were used to characterize the oxygen dependency of FMISO uptake and to examine other modifying factors. The uptake of [3H]FMISO was measured in four cell lines in vitro: V-79, EMT-6(UW), RIF-1, and CaOs-1. The modifying effects of different O2 levels as well as cell growth state and concentration of glucose and nonprotein sulfhydryls were examined. In these cell types an O2 level between 720 and 2300 ppm inhibited FMISO binding by 50%, relative to binding under anoxic conditions. These values bracket the O2 level which confers full radiobiologic hypoxia, about 1000 ppm. Some bound label was released from cells in the first 1 to 3 h after a 3-h anoxic labeling with [3H]FMISO, but this does not represent tritium loss from the parent molecule. Cells from unfed plateau-phase cultures took up less [3H]FMISO than did exponentially growing cells incubated at comparable O2 levels. Reducing glucose to 1/10 or 1/100 of the usual concentration in medium had little effect on binding of micromolar levels of FMISO, except in V-79 cells, where reduced glucose levels were associated with increased FMISO accumulation. Adding cysteamine to the culture medium moderately increased FMISO uptake. We conclude that cell growth state, glucose, and nonprotein sulfhydryl concentrations affect FMISO binding, albeit less than varying O2 levels: anoxic/oxic binding ratios vary from 12.6 to 28 for the four cell types examined. Nonetheless these factors must be considered in evaluating the oxygen-dependent binding of this nitroimidazole in tumors or tissues.