The arylamine carcinogen 3,2'-dimethyl-4-aminobiphenyl (DMABP) has been proposed to be metabolically activated to DNA-binding derivatives through the formation of an N-hydroxy intermediate. In this study, the subsequent activation of N-hydroxy-DMABP through acid catalysis or enzymatic esterification was examined. [Ring-3H]N-hydroxy-DMABP was reacted with calf thymus DNA at pH 4.6 for 15 min to yield 370 arylamine residues per 10(6) nucleotides, while at pH 7.4 the binding was only two residues per 10(6) nucleotides. The DNA modified under acidic conditions was enzymatically hydrolyzed and analyzed by h.p.l.c. which indicated the presence of three major adducts. The products were identified by spectral and chemical properties as N-(deoxyguanosin-8-yl)-DMABP (60-70%), 5-(deoxyguanosin-N2-yl)-DMABP (2-3%) and N-(deoxyadenosin-8-yl)-DMABP (1-3%). The same adducts have previously been detected in the liver and colon of rats administered DMABP or its hydroxamic acid. Incubation of rat hepatic or intestinal cytosol at pH 7.4 for 15 min with [ring-3H]N-hydroxy-DMABP in the presence of S-acetyl coenzyme A (AcCoA) and calf thymus DNA resulted in DNA binding at levels of 30-80 arylamine residues per 10(6) nucleotides. H.p.l.c. analysis of the DNA modified in the presence of AcCoA indicated the formation of the same adducts detected in the acid-catalyzed reactions. When arylhydroxamic acid N,O-acyltransferase assays were conducted with rat liver cytosol and N-acetyl-N-hydroxy-DMABP as the substrate, binding to nucleic acids was not observed. Similarly, 3'-phosphoadenosine-5'-phosphosulfate-dependent sulfotransferase-mediated DNA binding could not be demonstrated. These data indicate that in a suitable acidic environment, N-hydroxy-DMABP will react with DNA to yield the same adducts found in vivo. Under neutral conditions, however, N-hydroxy-DMABP appears to undergo AcCoA-dependent transacetylation to an electrophilic acetoxy ester which will spontaneously react with DNA.