Beyond its essential physiological functions, topoisomerase II is the primary cellular target for a number of clinically relevant antineoplastic drugs. Although the chemotherapeutic efficacies of these drugs correlate with their abilities to stabilize the covalent topoisomerase II-DNA cleavage complex, their molecular mechanism of action has yet to be described. In order to characterize the drug-induced stabilization of this enzyme-DNA complex, the effect of etoposide on the DNA cleavage/religation reaction of Drosophila melanogaster topoisomerase II was studied. Under the conditions employed, etoposide increased levels of enzyme-mediated double-stranded DNA cleavage 5-6-fold and single-stranded cleavage approximately 4-fold. Maximal stimulation was observed at 80-100 microM etoposide with 50% of the maximal effect at approximately 15 microM drug. By employing a topoisomerase II mediated DNA religation assay [Osheroff, N. & Zechiedrich, E.L. (1987) Biochemistry 26, 4303-4309], etoposide was found to stabilize the enzyme-DNA cleavage complex (at least in part) by inhibiting the enzyme's ability to religate cleaved DNA. Moreover, in order for the drug to affect religation, it has to be present at the time of DNA cleavage.