Gilvocarcins are antitumor agents that have been reported to damage DNA upon activation by visible light. This activation is dependent on interaction with DNA. Here it is shown that gilvocarcin V and its synthetic aglycone analogue can both introduce single-strand scission into plasmid DNA. Light irradiation is required for the reaction. The binding of gilvocarcin V to plasmid DNA in the absence of light decreased the DNA linking number in a fashion similar to known intercalating agents such as ethidium bromide. The use of oligonucleotides as substrates for gilvocarcin V demonstrated that one of the steps of the reaction following binding of gilvocarcin V to DNA involves covalent modification at thymidine and to a lesser extent, cytosine residues.