Transition metal ions and superoxide participate in different autoxidations to a variable extent. In the reaction of 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) with oxygen at pH 7.0 or 8.0, addition of 5 to 300 U/ml superoxide dismutase inhibited autoxidation by up to 96% at the highest concentrations. Superoxide dismutase at concentrations of 5-20 U/ml inhibited by less than 40% when present alone, but inhibited by over 99% in the presence of desferrioxamine or histidine. EDTA also enhanced the inhibition by 20 U/ml superoxide dismutase to 86%, even though EDTA accelerated the autoxidation of 6-OHDA when present alone or with desferrioxamine. In contrast, other ligands, such as ADP or phytic acid, had little or no effect on inhibition by superoxide dismutase. Proteins such as albumin, cytochrome oxidase, or denatured superoxide dismutase also enhanced inhibition by active superoxide dismutase from less than 40% to over 90%. Evidently, in the presence of redox active metals, autoxidation occurs by inner sphere electron transfer, presumably within a ternary 6-OHDA.metal.oxygen complex. This mechanism does not involve free O2-. and is not inhibited by superoxide dismutase. On the other hand, the presence of certain ligands (including proteins) diminishes the ability of trace metals to exchange electrons with 6-OHDA or oxygen by an inner sphere mechanism. These ligands render autoxidation dependent on propagation by O2-. and therefore inhibitable by superoxide dismutase. Previously conflicting reports that superoxide dismutase alone inhibits 6-OHDA autoxidation are thus explicable on the basis that at sufficient concentration the apoprotein coordinates trace metals in such a way to preclude inner sphere metal catalysis.