In mammalian cells, salvage pathway phosphorylation of thymidine is catalyzed by two thymidine kinases: the cell-cycle regulated cytoplasmic TK1 and the constitutively expressed mitochondrial TK2. Since TK1 is virtually absent in non-dividing cells, TK2 is probably the only thymidine kinase present in these cells. In cellular metabolism, TK1 and TK2 presumably serve to maintain sufficient dTTP for DNA replication and repair. TK1 purified from phytohemagglutinin-stimulated human lymphocytes is a dimer in the absence and a tetramer in the presence of ATP. In addition to the molecular weight transition, incubation with ATP at 4 degrees C or storage with ATP induces a reversible, enzyme concentration-dependent, kinetically slow transition from a low to a high affinity form of TK1, with Km values of 14 microM and 0.5 microM, respectively. This affinity difference implies that at cellular thymidine concentrations, the difference in catalytic activity between the two TK1 forms will be 3-5-fold. Calculations of cellular TK1 concentration suggested that the low affinity dimer form was dominant in G0/G1 cells and the high affinity tetramer form in S-phase cells. Hence, the transition may serve to fine-tune the cell-cycle regulation of thymidine kinase activity on the post-translational level. To study the ATP effect on the molecular level, an IPTG inducible T7 RNA polymerase-dependent expression system for the entire human TK1 polypeptide in E. coli was established. The recombinant TK1 has the same subunit mass and specific activity as the native enzyme. However, the recombinant TK1 solely displayed the kinetics of the high affinity form, with Km values of 0.3-0.4 microM regardless of pre-exposure to ATP, indicating that the ATP effect may be dependent on post-translational modifications absent in E. coli. Surprisingly, we did not observe any effect of ATP on TK1 purified from bone-marrow cells from a patient with acute monocytic leukemia (AMOL). Furthermore, the Km values of TK1 from these cells were 45 microM for the ATP-free enzyme and 65 microM for the ATP-incubated enzyme. With TK1 purified from HL-60 cells, we obtained the same pattern and kinetic values as for TK1 from lymphocytes. In the light of the results with the recombinant TK1, we presume that the lack of ATP effect and very high Km values observed for the AMOL TK1 may be due to changes in post-translational regulatory mechanisms in acute monocytic cells.