In past work, the selective effects of sodium cyanate on macromolecular synthesis in tumors have not been seen with cells in culture. We have explored the possibility that differences in the response of tumor cells to cyanate in vivo and in vitro may be related to the pH in the environment to which cells are exposed. When rat hepatoma (HTC) cells were incubated with sodium cyanate (0.25 mg/ml), there was a greater inhibition of precursor incorporation into RNA and DNA with a decrease in pH from 7.4 to 6.6. At pH 7.4 there was no significant effect of sodium cyanate on the incorporation of [3H]leucine into protein of rat hepatocytes and HTC cells, but at pH 6.6 there were decreases of 50% or greater. The time of response and the reversibility of the inhibitory effects of sodium cyanate were not those anticipated from carbamoylation of amino groups but were compatible with modification of sulfhydryl groups. The uptake of [14C]sodium cyanate in HTC cells and human colon cancer (HT29) cells was greater at pH 6.6 than at 7.4. Over a period of 4 days there was a slower rate of cell division by HTC and HT29 at pH 6.6 than at pH 7.4. The addition of sodium cyanate caused a further reduction in the rate of proliferation, and at a concentration of 0.25 mg sodium cyanate/ml there were decreases in cell numbers. The data suggested that a lower interstitial pH in tumors than normal tissues would result in greater sensitivity to inhibitory effects of sodium cyanate on macromolecular synthesis.