Mutations in the free radical-scavenging enzyme copper/zinc superoxide dismutase (Cu/Zn-SOD) are associated with neuronal death in humans and mice. Here, we examine the effects of human wild-type (WT SOD) and mutant (Gly93 --> Ala; G93A) Cu/Zn-SOD enzyme on the fate of postnatal midbrain neurons. One-week-old cultures from transgenic mice expressing WT SOD enzyme had significantly more midbrain neurons and fewer necrotic and apoptotic neurons than nontransgenic cultures. In contrast, 1-week-old cultures from transgenic G93A mice expressing mutant SOD enzyme had significantly fewer midbrain neurons and more necrotic and apoptotic neurons than nontransgenic cultures. To subject postnatal midbrain neurons to oxidative stress, cultures were incubated with L-DOPA. L-DOPA at 200 microM caused approximately 50% loss of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH)-positive neurons in nontransgenic cultures and even greater loss in transgenic G93A cultures; no alterations were noted in GABA neuron numbers. In contrast, 200 microM L-DOPA did not cause any significant reductions in TH-positive or GABA neuron numbers in transgenic WT SOD cultures. L-DOPA at 50 microM had opposite effects, in that it significantly increased TH-positive, but not GABA neuron numbers in transgenic WT SOD and G93A and in nontransgenic cultures. These results indicate that increased amounts of WT SOD enzyme promote cell survival and protect against L-DOPA-induced dopaminergic neurotoxicity, whereas increased amounts of mutated Cu/Zn-SOD enzyme have inverse effects. As the spontaneous loss and L-DOPA-induced loss of postnatal dopaminergic midbrain neurons appear to be mediated by free radicals, our study supports the view that mutated Cu/Zn-SOD enzyme kills cells by oxidative stress.