A fluorometric method for the determination of cellular growth and cytotoxicity of human tumor cell lines in 96-well microculture plates is described. The assay is based on the combined use of the DNA-binding dye Hoechst 33342 and the fluorogenic substrate fluorescein diacetate (FDA). Hoechst 33342 undergoes a dramatic enhancement of fluorescence when specifically intercalated with cellular DNA, whereas the FDA fluorescence is dependent on cellular hydrolysis of the non-fluorescent substrate into its fluorescent product. Fluorescence from both dyes was linearly related to the density of freshly seeded cells (6 x 10(3)-1 x 10(5)/well) and correlated well with physical cell count of cells under normal culture conditions as well as in response to the vinca alkaloid vincristine. However, the amount of FDA fluorescence produces and retained by the cultures was clearly dependent on the fraction of intact and viable cells, whereas the fluorescence reported by Hoechst 33342 was not. The assay was found to be simple, reliable and many samples could be analysed in a short period of time with minimal waste of cells and biological reagents. Apart from giving an estimate of cell density, the protocol described also provides a separate index of viability which in certain situations may be of importance for distinguishing between cytocidal and cytostatic drug actions. The method may be well suited for several applications, including the large scale screening for antitumor activity of compounds with potential cytocidal or cytostatic actions.