Chronic exposure of humans to benzene (BZ) causes acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Both BZ and therapy-related secondary AML are characterized by chromosomal translocations that may occur by inappropriate recombinational events. DNA topoisomerase II (topo II) is an essential sulfhydryl (SH)-dependent endonuclease required for replication, recombination, chromosome segregation, and chromosome structure. Topo II cleaves DNA at purine(R)/pyrimidine(Y) repeat sequences that have been shown to be highly recombinogenic in vivo. Certain antineoplastic drugs stabilize topo II-DNA cleavage complexes at RY repeat sequences, which leads to translocations of the type observed in leukemia. Hydroquinone (HQ) is metabolized to p-benzoquinone (BQ) in a peroxidase-mediated reaction in myeloid progenitor cells. BQ interacts wit SH groups of SH-dependent enzymes. Consequently, the aims of this research were to determine whether HQ and BQ are topo II inhibitors. The ability of the compounds to inhibit the activity of topo III was tested using an assay system that depends on the conversion, by homogeneous human topo II, of catenated kinetoplast DNA into open and/or nicked open circular DNA that can be separated from the catenated DNA by electrophoresis in a 1% agarose-ethidium bromide gel. We provide preliminary data that indicate that both HQ and BQ cause a time and concentration (microM)-dependent inhibition of topo II activity. These compounds, which potentially can form adducts with DNA, have no effect on the migration of the supercoiled and open circular forms in the electrophoretic gradient, and BQ-adducted KDNA can be decatenated by topo II. Using a pRYG plasmid DNA with a single RY repeat as a cleavage site, it was determined that BQ does not stimulate the production of linear DNA indicative of an inhibition of topo II religation of strand breaks by stabilization of the covalent topo III-DNA cleavage complex. Rather, BQ most probably inhibits the SH-dependent topo II by binding to an essential SH group. The inhibition of topo II by BQ has implications for the formation of deleterious translocations that may be involved in BZ-induced initiation of leukemogenesis.