Guanine arabinoside (araG) inhibited the in vitro growth of Giardia lamblia WB with an ED50 value of 4 microM. The inhibition was prevented completely by 2'-deoxyguanosine, prevented partially by guanine and guanosine, and not prevented by adenine, adenosine or 2'-deoxyadenosine. Extracts of G. lamblia grown in the presence of [8-3H]araG contained radiolabeled araGMP, araGDP and araGTP. The formation of araGTP during the exponential phase of cell growth increased with time and was dependent upon the araG concentration. AraG was incorporated into G. lamblia DNA in a time-dependent manner at a ratio of 1 araG for each 27 2'-deoxyguanosine residues. Short-term exposure of growing cultures to araG was inhibitory to DNA synthesis but not to RNA or protein synthesis. Over an extended period, synthesis of all three macromolecules was depressed. Attempts to measure araG phosphorylation by cell-free extracts of G. lamblia under a variety of nucleoside kinase and nucleoside phosphotransferase assay conditions were unsuccessful. In an attempt to understand further the action of araG, the metabolic pathways of guanine, guanosine and 2'-deoxyguanosine were delineated in detail. The presence of araG did not appear to cause any major alterations in the metabolism of these compounds; however, it was accompanied by a 3- to 4-fold increase in the endogenous pools of ATP and GTP.