The intercalating agents, adriamycin and ellipticine, were previously found to produce DNA strand breaks associated with DNA-protein crosslinks in mouse leukemia L1210 cells. The current work explores the nature of the agents that produce this effect and the quantitative relationship between the breaks and crosslinks. The protein-associated DNA breaks were produced by a wide variety of intercalators in addition to the above-mentioned compounds: actinomycin D, daunoycin, ethidium and lucanthone (miracil D). Treatment with several drugs that bind to DNA without intercalation, or that inhibit DNA synthesis without binding to DNA, did not cause DNA breaks. The strand break and crosslink frequencies were quantitated by means of alkaline elution methods. The strand break and crosslink frequencies were found to be within a factor of 2 of each other over a range of concentrations of adriamycin and ellipticine. It is proposed that intercalation-induced distortion of the DNA helix leads to strand scission by a nuclease which becomes bound to one terminus of the break so as to form a DNA-protein crosslink.