In nine human colon tumour cell lines the relationship between O6-alkylguanine-DNA alkyltransferase (O6-AGT) activity and carmustine resistance was investigated. Three lines with O6-AGT activity below 25 fmol/mg protein had carmustine ED50 values ranging from 5.0 microM to 11.9 microM; six lines displaying an O6-AGT activity above 240 fmol/mg protein had ED50 values ranging from 28.9 microM to 69.5 microM. In lines with low O6-AGT activity, depletion of the repair protein by O6-benzylguanine resulted in a marginal increase of carmustine cytotoxicity (sensitization factors less than 2). In the majority of cell lines with high O6-AGT activity, pretreatment with O6-benzylguanine resulted in a pronounced sensitization to carmustine. In one line, an optimal time schedule for sensitization of colon tumour cells by O6-benzylguanine was assessed; continuous exposure to O6-benzylguanine > or = 16 h after carmustine exposure) was superior to short-term exposure limited to a period before carmustine treatment.