Associations between ethanol-induced cranial neural crest cell (NCC) damage in mammalian embryos and subsequent malformations as observed in human fetal alcohol syndrome have previously been illustrated. The vulnerability of NCCs to this teratogen may result, at least in part, from their sensitivity to free radical damage. To examine relationships between free radical generation and NCC cytotoxicity, primary culture of mouse NCCs was used. NCC viability was determined in both dose- and time-response studies involving ethanol exposure. After 48 hr of culture, cell viability was significantly diminished at all doses tested (i.e., 50, 100, 150, and 200 mM ethanol). At 100 mM ethanol (a dosage that is teratogenic in vivo and in whole embryo culture), cell viability decreased to approximately 50% of control values over the first 12 hr of culture, and decreased further, to approximately 20% by 48 hr. Using nitroblue tetrazolium as a probe, it was observed that exposure of NCCs to ethanol stimulated the production of superoxide anion radicals. Co-treatment of the ethanol-exposed NCCs with free radical scavengers including 300 units/ml of superoxide dismutase, catalase (500 units/ml), or alpha-tocopherol (300 microM) significantly improved NCC viability. These results suggest that the ethanol-induced NCC injury is mediated, at least in part, through the generation of free radicals. To test this hypothesis further, NCCs were exposed in culture to xanthine/xanthine oxidase. Exogenous free radicals generated by the xanthine/xanthine oxidase system resulted in reduced NCC viability, the severity of which increased in a time and enzyme concentration-related manner. Superoxide dismutase (300 units/ml) and catalase (500 units/ml) significantly reduced the effects of the xanthine/xanthine oxidase-generated free radicals on NCC viability. The similarity between the susceptibility of NCCs to ethanol and their susceptibility to exogenous free radicals in concert with the free radical scavenger-mediated amelioration of ethanol and exogenous free radical-induced NCC death strongly suggest that free radicals play a significant role in ethanol-induced NCC death.