Curcumin, the natural antioxidant from turmeric, an Indian spice, and its derivatives have significant abilities to protect plasmid pBR322 DNA against single-strand breaks induced by singlet oxygen (1O2), a reactive oxygen species with potential genotoxic/mutagenic properties. 1O2 was generated at 37 degrees C in an aqueous buffer system by the thermal dissociation of the endoperoxide of 3,3'-(1,4-naphthylene)dipropionate (NDPO2). Among the compounds tested, curcumin was the most effective inhibitor of DNA damage followed by desmethoxycurcumin, bisdesmethoxycurcumin and other derivatives. The observed antioxidant activity was both time- and concentration-dependent. The protective ability of curcumin was higher than that of the well-known biological antioxidants lipoate, alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene. However, the highest protective ability with saturating concentrations of curcumin did not exceed 50%. The ability of curcumin and its derivatives to protect DNA against 1O2 seems to be related to their structures and may at least partly explain the therapeutic and other beneficial effects of these compounds including anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic properties.