The quinoid pigments pthiocol, produced by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and pyocyanine, produced by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, were examined for their effects on O2.- production in cultured human lung epithelial-like A549 cells. Intracellular O2.- levels were measured using the O2.-sensitive aconitase(s), and rates of O2.- generation were assessed from rates of antimycin-resistant respiration. Elevated O2.- was detected in cells exposed to < 25 microM phthiocol and < 2 microM pyocyanine in neutral pH medium, and both agents impaired cell growth. The O2.- scavenging manganoporphyrin, Mn(III)TMPyP, partially protected cells against pyocyanine and phthiocol-mediated growth inhibition. O2.- production by phthiocol and pyocyanine was enhanced by acidification of the growth medium. Surprisingly, the dicumarol-inhibitable quinoid detoxification enzyme DT-diaphorase was a significant source of phthiocol and pyocyanine-mediated O2.- generation in cells. O2.- production in macrophages by the phthiocol analog, menadione, was shown to impair macrophage mitochondrial respiration and bactericidal activity toward Escherichia coli. Phthiocol and pyocyanine, by producing O2.-/H2O2, and inhibiting host cell aconitase activity, energetics, and other host cell functions, may contribute to the pathogenicity of M. tuberculosis and P. aeruginosa.