The overt effects of the anti-cancer drugs cisplatin (cis-DDP) and taxol appear to be DNA modification and microtubule stabilization respectively, yet the mechanisms by which these drugs elicit tumor cell death are not well understood. In this report cell sensitivities to cis-DDP and taxol were accurately determined as a function of cell proliferation and cell cycle stage. Quiescent fibroblasts restimulated to synchronously enter the cell cycle become maximally sensitive to cis-DDP immediately preceding DNA synthesis, and resistance increases with onset of DNA synthesis. Mid-log proliferating cells were separated into progressive stages of the cell cycle by centrifugal elutriation or by double thymidine (dThd) block. Cells staged by either method are maximally sensitive to cis-DDP in G1, just prior to the onset of DNA synthesis and minimally sensitive in peak DNA synthesis, with entry into S phase resulting in a 2-fold decrease in sensitivity. Cells that remained blocked at the G1/S phase boundary during cis-DDP treatment remain maximally sensitive after release. Sensitivity to taxol increases at 2 points: transiently during transition of normal cells from quiescence to proliferation and steadily as proliferating cells progress from early G1 to late G2. This 3-fold increase in taxol sensitivity through the cell cycle is rapidly reversed upon cell division. Synchronous cells treated with either drug at points of maximum sensitivity initiate apoptotic DNA fragmentation 12-14 hr post-exposure to drug.