The 'spontaneous' frequency of genetic damage (normal background) and the possible relationship of this damage to nutritional variables in humans were investigated in 22 subjects using several indices of genetic damage. The subjects were chosen, out of 122 initially analyzed, for being at the extremes of the highest and lowest values of one index of genetic damage, the frequency of micronucleated erythrocytes in peripheral blood. This index reflects chromosomal damage and loss in bone marrow erythropoietic cells. The assay for micronuclei is convenient but is restricted to splenectomized individuals because the human spleen removes micronucleated cells. The initial 122 subjects were splenectomized, but all were normal and healthy at the time of this study and none had a previous history of neoplastic disease. Factors investigated were stability of micronucleus frequency as a function of time, correlations among multiple markers of genetic damage, and influence on damage indices of nutritional variables, including blood levels of folate, B12 and antioxidant vitamins. Among different individuals, the range of values was 10-fold or more in the erythrocyte micronucleus, glycophorin A, plasma ascorbate and urinary 8-hydroxydeoxyguanosine (oxo8dG) assays, was approximately 6-fold in the lymphocyte micronucleus assay, and was 2-fold in the lymphocyte sister chromatid exchange (SCE) assay. Red blood cell folate and plasma folate, B12 and alpha-tocopherol values varied by up to 10-fold among individuals. Micronucleus frequencies in erythrocytes and peripheral blood lymphocytes ranged from < 0.3 to 16.9/1000 in mature red blood cells, < 1 to 33/1000 in reticulocytes, and 2.5 to 15/1000 in binucleate lymphocytes. Frequencies of glycophorin A variant erythrocytes ranged from 5.6 to 77.3 x 10(6) N/0 cells and 3.2 to 16.2 x 10(6) N/N cells, and oxo8dG excretion varied from 32 to 397 pmol/kg/day. Although a wide range of values was observed in each genetic endpoint, the extreme values for various endpoints of genetic damage were not observed in the same individuals. The frequency of micronucleated erythrocytes varied over time within individuals and indicated that individuals with the highest levels of damage exhibit greater variability than those with lower levels. In some subjects, frequencies of micronucleated erythrocytes changed dramatically over an interval of 2-3 years: four subjects with initial micronucleated reticulocyte frequencies of 20.4, 5.9, 6.4 and 33/1000 changed to 2.5, 20.5, 18.5 and 12/1000, respectively. Among more than 150 individuals we have studied, including the 64 individuals studied by Everson et al. [(1988) J. Natl. Cancer Inst., 80, 525-529] and Smith et al. [(1990) Cancer Res., 50, 5049-5054], the seven individuals with the highest observed frequencies of micronucleated erythrocytes all had exceptionally low values of plasma folate, red cell folate, or plasma B12, suggesting that folate and B12 status are the major determinants of the types of damage that lead to spontaneous micronucleus formation in erythrocytic cells.