The biochemical mechanism of lymphocyte dysfunction with adenosine deaminase deficiency has been investigated using cultured phytohemagglutinin stimulated normal peripheral blood lymphocytes and the adenosine deaminase (ADA) inhibitor 2'-deoxycoformycin. The addition of deoxyadenosine to ADA-inhibited (but not to uninhibited) cells generated increased dATP pools (up to 50-fold greater than controls) and depressed the mitogen response. dATP Accumulation was accompanied by depletion of the other three deoxynucleoside triphosphate (dNTP) pools (dTTP, dCTP, and dGTP). Suppression of the mitogen response could be prevented ("reversed") to 90% of control levels by the addition of deoxynucleoside precursors for the depleted dNTPs at the initiation of mitogen stimulation. "Reversal" restored the dTTP and possibly the dGTP pools. Thus the mechanism of toxicity in this model appears to be inhibition of ribonucleotide reductase by massive accumulation of dATP, resulting in starvation for the other three deoxyribonucleoside triphosphates. "Reversibility" of this toxicity by providing sources for the missing three deoxynucleoside triphosphates argues for ribonucleotide reductase inhibition rather than other mechanisms of deoxyadenosine toxicity in this model.