Human diploid fibroblast cells cease growth in culture after a finite number of population doublings. To address the cause of growth cessation in senescent IMR-90 human fibroblast cells, we determined the level of oxidative DNA damage by using 8-oxoguanine excised from DNA and 8-oxo-2'-deoxyguanosine in DNA as markers. Senescent cells excise from DNA four times more 8-oxoguanine per day than do early-passage young cells. The steady-state level of 8-oxo-2'-deoxyguanosine in DNA is approximately 35% higher in senescent cells than in young cells. Measurement of protein carbonyls shows that senescent cells did not appear to have elevated protein oxidation. To reduce the level of oxidative damage, we cultured cells under a more physiological O2 concentration (3%) and compared the replicative life span to the cells cultured at the O2 concentration of air (20%). We found that cells grown under 3% O2 achieved 50% more population doublings during their lifetime. Such an extension of life span resulted from the delayed onset of senescence and elevation of growth rate and saturation density of cells at all passages. The spin-trapping agent alpha-phenyl-t-butyl nitrone (PBN), which can act as an antioxidant, also effectively delayed senescence and rejuvenated near senescent cells. The effect is dose-dependent and is most pronounced for cells at the stage just before entry into senescence. Our data support the hypothesis that oxidative DNA damage contributes to replicative cessation in human diploid fibroblast cells.