The DNA repair protein O6-methylguanine-DNA methyltransferase (MGMT) removes alkyl groups from the O6 position of guanine in DNA and thus may protect cells against genotoxic effects of agents inducing this lesion. To analyze quantitatively the level of protection mediated by MGMT against antineoplastic drugs, we determined the cytotoxic and recombinogenic (sister-chromatid exchange inducing) effects of various chemotherapeutic agents in a pair of isogenic Chinese hamster cell lines deficient and proficient for MGMT, generated upon transfection with human MGMT cDNA. Furthermore, we compared the responses of the human cell lines HeLa MR (MGMT deficient) and HeLa S3 (MGMT proficient) to the various agents. It is shown that: (1) MGMT proficient cells are resistant in cell killing to the methylating drug streptozotocin and all the chloroethylating nitrosoureas tested. There was a marked agent specificity in protection. The level of resistance provoked by MGMT increased in the order BCNU < CCNU < ACNU < HeCNU < streptozotocin. (2) MGMT did not protect cells against killing induced by chlorambucil, cisplatin, melphalan, activated cyclophosphamide (malosfamide) and activated ifosfamide (4-hydroperoxy-ifosfamide). (3) MGMT caused protection against the recombinogenic effect of all nitrosoureas tested. The lowest level of protection was again observed for BCNU, followed by CCNU, ACNU < HeCNU < streptozotocin. (4) MGMT proficient cells did not exhibit resistance in SCE induction towards cyclophosphamide (activated by microsomes), 4-hydroperoxy-ifosfamide, mafosfamide, chlorambucil and melphalan. Some protection was afforded, however, against cisplatin (and transplatin). This effect was abolished by pretreatment of cells with O6-benzylguanine, which depletes MGMT, indicating that some lesion(s) induced by cisplatin giving rise to SCEs can be repaired by MGMT. Taken together, these results indicate that streptozotocin, HeCNU and ACNU are more selective than CCNU and BCNU in killing MGMT deficient cells, and that in the cases of cyclophosphamide, ifosfamide, chlorambucil, cisplatin and melphalan MGMT is not involved in mediating cytotoxic drug resistance.