Rhodotorula mucilaginosa is an obligate aerobic yeast which contains a high concentration of carotenoid pigment. To test whether carotenoids are able to protect R. mucilaginosa against oxidative injury, yeast cells in liquid culture were incubated with duroquinone (DQ) (100 microM), a redox-cycling quinone known to generate intracellular O2-. or were grown in a hyperoxic atmosphere (80% O2) under conditions where carotenoid concentrations were altered either intracellularly or extracellularly. Neither of these oxidative challenges affected cell growth unless carotenogenesis was blocked by the addition of diphenylamine (50 microM). In the diphenylamine-treated nonpigmented cells, growth was completely inhibited by DQ and by hyperoxia. In normoxia, however, diphenylamine alone reduced growth by only 30%. The growth inhibition observed in diphenylamine-treated cells exposed to hyperoxia was primarily mycocidal rather than mycostatic since plating of these cells onto solid media revealed that only 25% of the cells were viable after 50 h of incubation when compared to plated control cells. Addition of 10 microM beta-carotene to diphenylamine-treated cells completely prevented the growth inhibition caused by either hyperoxia or DQ. Carotenoids, therefore, are able to prevent oxidant-induced cytotoxicity in R. mucilaginosa. Analysis of the absorption spectra of chloroform extracts of beta-carotene-supplemented cells showed that beta-carotene, not the endogenous carotenoid, torularhodin, was the major carotenoid present in these cells. Superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity in R. mucilaginosa was compared with that of another yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae by two methods: (i) activity staining of proteins separated by gel electrophoresis and (ii) measurement of inhibition of ferricytochrome c reduction. By these techniques, the R. mucilaginosa SOD activity had the characteristics of Mn-SOD. No Cu/ZnSOD activity was detected. Thus, the apparent absence of Cu/ZnSOD may make the antioxidant capability of endogenous carotenoids even more critical in preventing oxidative damage in R. mucilaginosa.