Peroxynitrite is a powerful oxidant formed through reaction of nitric oxide with superoxide. Because activated macrophages can produce both nitric oxide and superoxide, it has been proposed that peroxynitrite may contribute to cytotoxicity and increased cancer risks associated with the inflammatory response during chronic infections. We therefore investigated mutagenicity of peroxynitrite in the supF gene of the pSP189 shuttle vector as a mutation target. The plasmid was exposed to 2.5 mM peroxynitrite in vitro, then replicated in Eschericia coli MBL50 and in human AD293 cells. Mutation frequency increased 21-fold in pSP189 replicated in E. coli and 9-fold in plasmid replicated in human cells. Mutations were clustered within the 5' region of the supF gene in plasmids replicated in bacteria. The hot spots were located at positions 108, 113, 116, 124, 126 and 141; more than 25% of all mutations occurred at position 124. Following replication in human cells, mutations were more widely distributed over the gene, with hot spots at positions 113, 124, 133, 156 and 164; 15% occurred at position 124. In both systems, the majority of mutations occurred at G:C base pairs, predominantly involving G:C-->T:A transversions (65% when replication was in bacteria and 63% when in human cells). G:C-->C:G transversions were observed at lower frequency (28% in MBL50 and 11% in AD293 cells), and 11% of mutations found in vectors replicated in AD293 cells were G:C-->A:T transitions. A greater number of large deletions, insertions, tandem and multiple mutations occurred in plasmid replicated in AD293 cells. Differences in mutation spectra following replication in the two systems may be attributable to differences in recognition and repair of the lesions and/or properties of the replication apparatus.