Menadione (2-methyl-1,4-naphthoquinone) induces oxidative stress in cells causing perturbations in the cytoplasm as well as nicking of DNA. The mechanisms by which DNA damage occurs are still unclear, but a widely discussed issue is whether menadione-generated reactive oxygen species (ROS) directly damage DNA. In the present study, we measured the effect of menadione on formation of 7,8-dihydro-8-oxo-2'-deoxyguanosine (8-oxodG), an index of oxidative DNA base modifications, and on DNA fragmentation. Isolated hepatocytes from phenobarbital-pretreated rats were exposed to menadione, 25-400 microM, for 15, 90 or 180 min with or without prior depletion of reduced glutathione (GSH) by diethyl maleate. Menadione caused profound GSH depletion and internucleosomal DNA fragmentation, which was demonstrated by a prominent fragmentation ladder on agarose gel electrophoresis. We found no oxidative modification of DNA in terms of increased 8-oxodG formation. In contrast, the positive control of sunlamp light increased 8-oxodG 5-fold in rat hepatocytes. We conclude that oxidative modification of DNA bases is unlikely to be important in menadione-induced DNA damage.